The Words and Deeds of ChristJOSEPH SOBRAN
I began to marvel at the words that were truly the most inspired ever uttered: those of Christ. His words have a unique power that sets them off from all merely human words.
When I was a much younger man, I almost worshipped Shakespeare. He seemed to me almost literally inspired, the most eloquent man who ever lived. And he nearly filled the place in my life that Catholicism had briefly occupied after my teenage conversion.
When I returned to the Catholic Church in my early thirties, I began to see him differently. As a professional writer myself, I still admired him immensely, realizing how impossible it was that I should ever emulate him. But I no longer regarded him as a god. I had another god namely, God.
I began to marvel at the words that were truly the most inspired ever uttered: those of Christ. As a writer I felt honored when anyone quoted me or remembered anything Id written. But Christ is still quoted after 2,000 years. An obscure man, he wrote nothing; we have only a few of the many words he spoke during his life, not in the Hebrew or Aramaic he spoke them in, but translated into Greek and thence into English.
His words have a unique power that sets them off from all merely human words. Even two removes from their original language, they still penetrate us and rule our consciences. They have changed the world profoundly. He didnt just perform miracles; he spoke miracles. The words we read from his mouth are miracles. They have a supernatural effect on anyone who is receptive to them.
One proof of their power is that we also resist them. Sometimes they are unbearable. Like some of the early disciples who fell away, we are tempted to say:
This is hard stuff. Who can accept it? Its the natural reaction of the natural man, fallen man.
Great as Shakespeare is, I never lose sleep over anything he said. He leaves my conscience alone. He is a tremendous virtuoso of language, but much of his beauty is bound to be lost in translation. (I apologize if this offends our German readers; Germans believe that Shakespeare in English was really just raw material for Schillers great translations.)
By the same token, nobody ever feels guilty about anything Plato or Aristotle said. They spoke important and lasting truths often enough, but never anything that disturbs us inwardly. We are never afraid to read them. We arent tempted to resist them as we are tempted to resist Christ. The sayings of Confucius and Mohammed havent carried over into alien cultures with anything like the force of Christs words. They may be very wise at times, or they wouldnt have endured for many centuries; but still, they are only human.
But all this raises a question (and here I apologize for offending our Protestant readers). If the Bible is to be our sole guide, why didnt Christ himself write it? Why didnt he even expressly tell the Apostles to write it, as far as we know? Why did he leave so much to chance? Yet he said: Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away. And so far this certainly appears true, though we know of no measures on his part to see to it that his words would be preserved. He seems to have trusted that they would somehow have their effect by their sheer intrinsic power, just as he trusted that his enduring the humiliation, agony, and death of a common criminal would confound every human expectation and fulfill his tremendous mission.
St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that the Redemption was an even greater miracle than the Creation. Ive often wondered just what he meant by that, and I think Im starting to see. The human imagination can readily conceive of God creating the world. The human race has many creation stories and myths; every culture seems to have its own. But nobody imagined, no human being could ever imagine, God becoming a human being and redeeming the human race by submitting to utter disgrace, unspeakable physical pain, and death, ending his life in what appeared even to his disciples to be total futility.
The greatest genius who ever lived could never have foreseen or supposed such a story. It was absolutely contrary to human common sense. It came as a total shock even to the devout and learned Jews who were intimate with the Scriptures and prayed for the coming of the Messiah. The Apostles who had repeatedly heard Christ himself predict his Passion, his destiny on the Cross, failed to comprehend it when it actually came to pass. When his words were fulfilled to the letter, instead of recognizing what seems to us so obvious, they fled in terror. (As we would done have in their place.)
The New Testament Epistles were written by men who had seen Christ after the Resurrection. A skeptic might dismiss St. Pauls vision as a hallucination, but Peter, John, and James had seen Christs Passion and afterward met him, conversed with him, dined with him, touched him. They didnt deny their own desertion and loss of faith at the time of his death, just as the ancient Israelites didnt play down, in their own scriptures, their many defections from the true God; it was an essential part of the story.
Nor did the authors of the Epistles keep reiterating that the Resurrection was a fact, as if it were in doubt. They simply treated it as something too well known to their hearers to need further proof. They were prepared to die as martyrs in imitation of Christ; Christian suffering, not writing, was to be the chief medium of the Good News for the rest of the world.
Christs words, in their minds, were inseparable from his deeds. He had founded an organization, which we call the Church, and he had told and shown the Apostles how to go about their mission when he was no longer visibly present. It seems to me fatally anachronistic to suppose that distributing literature, in the form of what we now call the Bible, was to be a prominent part of this mission; that was impossible before the printing press, surely a great technological advance but one that had no role in the life of the Church before the fifteenth century. The Apostles had and could have no conception of books as we know them, easily mass-produced and cheaply purchased. Before Gutenberg, every book had to be copied by hand, carefully preserved, awkwardly used. Reading itself was a special skill.
The life of the Church, as prescribed by Christ, was sacramental. He never told the Apostles to write books; he told them to baptize, to preach the Gospel, to forgive sins, and to commemorate the climactic moment of his ministry before the Passion, the Last Supper. He delegated his own authority to them and left much to their discretion, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. That is why Catholics give so much weight to tradition; we arent privy to all his instructions to the Apostles, but we trust that they knew what they were doing when they formed the Church in her infancy.
In one respect Catholics are more fundamentalist than the fundamentalists. We take the words This is my body and This is my blood very literally. So did the first hearers who rejected the hard saying that eating his flesh and drinking his blood was necessary to salvation; he didnt correct the impression that he meant exactly what he seemed to be saying. Even a current writer, the professedly Catholic Garry Wills, rejects the traditional Catholic doctrine that the priest who consecrates bread and wine converts them into the very body and blood of Christ. Christs words, as I say, still provoke resistance. And this is why I believe them.
What greater proof of his divinity could there be than the fact that he is still resisted, even hated, after 2,000 years? Nobody hates Julius Caesar anymore; its pretty hard even to hate Attila the Hun, who left a lot of hard feelings in his day. But the world still hates Christ and his Church.
The usual form of this hatred is interesting in itself. For every outright persecutor, there are countless people who pretend not to hate Christ, but subtly demote him to the rank of a great moral teacher, or say they have nothing against Christianity as long as the separation of church and state is observed, or, under the guise of scholarship, affect to winnow out his authentic utterances from those falsely ascribed to him as if the Apostles would have dared to put words in his mouth! And as if such fabricated words would have proved as durable as authentic ones! (Try writing a single sentence that anyone could mistake for a saying of Christ for even a century.)
Most secular-minded people would find it distasteful to nail a Christian to a cross, though there have been exceptions. They prefer to create a certain distance between themselves (or society ) and Christ, to insulate worldly life from the unbearable Good News, so that they feel no obligation to respond to Gods self-revelation. An especially horrifying concrete application of this insulation of society from Christianity is the reduction of the act of killing unborn children to an abstract political issue, a matter about which we can civilly disagree.
Pretending to leave the ultimate questions moot, they actually live in denial of and opposition to the truth we have been given at so much cost. What was formerly Christendom a civilization built around that central revelation of God to man has now fallen into a condition of amnesia and indifference.
Even much of the visible Catholic Church itself has defected from its duty of evangelizing, which begins with transmitting Catholic teaching to children. Ignorance of Catholic doctrine in the American Church is now both a scandal and a terrible tragedy.
The Vatican recently offended its Protestant and Jewish partners in ecumenical dialogue by reiterating the most basic claim of the Catholic Church: that its the One True Church, the only sure way to salvation. Apparently the tacit precondition of dialogue was that the Church stand prepared to renounce her identity. And we can well understand why some people might get the mistaken impression, even from certain papal statements and gestures, that this was a live possibility. But it was a misunderstanding that had to be unequivocally cleared up before any honest conversation could occur.
Christ always has been, still is, and always will be too much for the human race at large to accept or assimilate. Exactly as he said he would be. The world keeps proving the truth of his words.
Sobran, Joseph. The Words and Deeds of Christ LewRockwell.com (November 21, 2000).
Reprinted with permission from Sobrans.
Joseph Sobran is a syndicated columnist, a lecturer and speaker, and the author of three books. His most recent book Hustler: The Clinton Legacy, is published by Griffin Communications. In 1994, he founded SOBRANS, a monthly newsletter of his essays and columns. The newsletter is available by subscription and by e-mail at this website or by calling our toll-free number (1-800-513-5053). Joseph Sobran is currently writing a book on the abandonment of the Constitution.
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