I read the first volume of Joseph Ratzinger’s three-volume opus on the life of Jesus a little over a year ago, intending to read the second volume during that year’s Lent.
I finished Part Two a couple of weeks ago. Whether the delay was due to my own absentmindedness or perhaps because I wasn’t prepared to absorb the second book, it’s been a wonderful and relevant enrichment during Lent this year. Like the first book, this isn’t Catholic dogma, and there’s no reason for Protestant readers to shy away from it. This series is a solid, well-researched, engagingly-written, and Biblically-focused examination of the life and person of Jesus, penned by an eminent theologian with a pastor’s heart. There’s probably a copy at your local library. Check it out.
This is a more challenging read than the first volume, mostly because it’s packed even fuller with insights that take some time to digest. Nearly any paragraph could sustain a solid week or two of Bible study. Where Part One surveyed the broad scope of Jesus’ ministry years, Part Two zeroes-in on Holy Week, and the books are about the same size. This reflects a quantum leap in the level of detail—Ratzinger drills deeply into the significant events surrounding the Crucifixion and Resurrection, examining them both in their immediate context and their larger significance to the mystery of the Incarnation, and the Pope Emeritus has a lot to say in answer to the question, Who is Jesus, and how did his life, death, and resurrection transform our relationship with God?
As in Part One, Ratzinger employs a wide range of Biblical scholarship and analysis in support of his narrative, while continuing his gentle critique of the historical-critical method of Biblical scholarship that pursues a “historical” Jesus but neglects the role of faith that illuminates the Scriptural account and reveals the meaning that permeates it. His method and intent are important to understand before delving into these books, so I strongly recommend reading Part One first, where he discusses this in detail.
In Part One, Ratzinger presented Jesus as the new lawgiver, the perfected “Moses” leading his people into the Promised Land. In Part Two, tracing the events of Holy Week, he shows how Jesus is revealed as the new, perfected High Priest, simultaneously God and Man, King and Intercessor, Priest and Sacrifice.
He spends a lot of time examining how Jesus prayed during these days—the High Priestly prayer at the Last Supper, the intercessory prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, and the words from the Cross. He also delves into Jesus’ prophetic discourses and instructions to his disciples that set the stage for the emergence of the Church that will carry on his ministry to the world, a calling and example epitomized in his washing of the disciples’ feet. Holy Week culminates in Jesus’ death and resurrection, wholly unprecedented and revolutionary events with implications that Jesus’ followers, guided by the Holy Spirit, would spend generations unpacking.
Not one to shy away from the hard questions, Ratzinger takes on the controversies surrounding the four Gospel narratives and shows how their harmony is preserved despite differing perspectives, emphases, and timelines. He concludes with a very simple and practical evidence of the reality of these events and this person he’s shared with us in the pages of his book, displayed in the aftermath of Jesus’ ascension into heaven:
The conclusion surprises us. Luke says that the disciples were full of joy at the Lord’s definitive departure. We would have expected them to be left perplexed and sad. The world was unchanged, and Jesus had gone definitively. They had received a commission that seemed impossible to carry out and lay well beyond their powers…And yet it is written that they returned to Jerusalem with great joy, blessing God. How are we to understand this? In any case, it follows that the disciples do not feel abandoned. They do not consider Jesus to have disappeared far away into an inaccessible heaven. They are obviously convinced of a new presence of Jesus…they know that he is now permanently among them, in the way that only God can be close to us.
This is the Jesus revealed to us in Holy Week, the joy and hope of those who believe. Not absent, but ever and always present with us in a new way.