Father Thomas Esposito
Special to The Texas Catholic
When I read the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ ministry, I often pause to ask myself: would I have been brave enough to accept his invitation to discipleship if I heard him with my own ears? Had I been a believing Jew following his ministry, could I have embraced his vision of my ancestral past and future, so appealing and yet utterly jarring at the same time? On most days, I confess that I do not know. The radical nature of Jesus’ demands on his own contemporaries required, in some sense, a far greater act of faith than what is asked of us today.
A carpenter’s son from an afterthought province of the Roman Empire who asserted a divinely sanctioned reordering of Judaism’s central premises; an itinerant preacher who violated sacred practices and precepts while claiming to fulfill them (see Matthew 5:17-48); a master of parables who gathered a bunch of utterly ordinary fishermen and women to follow him; a wonder-worker who dared to declare that God was his father; a social revolutionary who died a most ignominious death on a cross, one that he insisted was necessary to fulfill the Law and the prophets (see Luke 24:13-35) – we should not underestimate the weight of such immense claims he placed on his earliest followers.
It is undoubtedly a blessing to live now, for many different reasons. One essential aspect of that blessing is our necessary reliance on the immediate faith of those first disciples in orienting our own lives toward the same Lord that they confessed to have seen with their own eyes. In the very act of faith that I make today, I do indeed encounter and respond to Jesus directly, just as they did; yet mine is inevitably a mediated faith, on account of the fact that I did not see Jesus heal the blind man on the roadside, or weep over the city of Jerusalem.
The more I question whether I would have perceived in Jesus the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel, the more I marvel at the awesome roots of the Christian faith planted by the initial witnesses: the apostles, cowardly at his arrest and then fearless after his resurrection; the faithful women who were the first recipients of the news that Jesus had triumphed over the tomb; the literary-minded men who penned the accounts of Jesus’ words and deeds that we call Gospels; the unique St. Paul, who persecuted Christians and then persevered in the Christian faith unto martyrdom.
The New Testament texts are fundamentally a gift of faith to us. They assure us that the men and women who encountered Jesus thought that we, their brothers and sisters in faith, should receive their musings and memoirs of the man who died so that all of us might live. They themselves came to terms, in the pages of their Gospels and their letters, with the fact that Jesus died with us and for us, taking upon himself the death of every sinful human being, in order to teach us how to die and therefore live by means of love. They unpacked for us, even as they implemented Jesus’ instructions about the Eucharist and the forgiveness of sins, the meaning of that act of love by the Son of God, who so deeply sympathized (that is, suffered) with our weaknesses that he taught us how to die so that we might live with him forever (see Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9, the second reading for the Good Friday liturgy).
I can hear the wonder animating the words of St. Paul as he sets the tone for our understanding of Christ’s life and death: “What, then, are we to say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not withhold His own Son, but handed Him over for all of us, will He not also give us everything freely along with him?” (Romans 8:31-32).
At a time in which the lungs of the world are struggling to breathe, our only response to the one who died asphyxiated on the cross can be gratitude, even as we implore him to heal our own wounds. Ours is a faith in Jesus Christ, the conqueror of death; but it is the faith of Peter, and Paul, and Mary Magdalene, and Luke that we have inherited. And to those who first bore the blessings and burdens of faith and therefore allowed us to stand on the rock of their witness, we should offer hymns of thanks to the God who orchestrated all this for love of us.
Father Thomas Esposito, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas.