Easter Joy and the Totality of Being
Apr 11, 2023
Stephen Loughlin, Ph.D.
My wife and I have been enjoying the latest depiction of the life of Christ in a series called “The Chosen.” There is much good to be found in this loving presentation of our Lord’s Person and ministry. And even though Zeffirelli's “Jesus of Nazareth” still holds pride of place for those of us brought up in the 70s, there is nevertheless something in this modern retelling of the greatest story ever told that engages this aging boomer.
Back in the day, many noted how prominently Zeffirelli portrayed the humanity of Christ. What strikes me now is how much more this is emphasized in “The Chosen.” Although the actor portraying Christ has made great efforts to present in his acting the two divine natures in one Person, I find the results less than satisfying. One has the sense that the forest has been lost for the trees, that Christ’s divinity is lost amidst His humanity and of those who surround Him. Naturally, a representation of the Incarnation is fraught with difficulties, leading some to forbid the attempt out of reverence for the Divine. While I have some sympathy for this view, I think it important to make this attempt at representation both in artistry and in thought.
In his marvelous book Introduction to Christianity, Pope Benedict XVI rehearses an argument that is applicable to this point. Most people in our time, he says, will admit that there is a supreme being, but then, in the next breath are convinced it would be absurd that “this being should concern himself with man.” That the West’s monotheisms believe that God is indeed so concerned is judged to be an “expression of a naïve anthropomorphism, of a primitive mode of thought comprehensible in a situation in which man still lived in a small world, in which the earth was the center of all things and God had nothing else to do but look down on it.”
The point is then heightened through an appeal to the view of reality and of the universe prevalent in our time, one in which “we know how infinitely different things are, how unimportant the earth is in the vast universe and consequently how unimportant that little speck of dust, man, is in comparison with the dimension of the cosmos...” How absurd, therefore, “that this supreme being should concern himself with man, his pitiful little world, his cares, his sins, and his non-sins” (pp. 145-146). This is particularly the case with Jesus Christ, His Incarnation, and all that is associated with the salvific act. It would seem to such that Christians believe in something that is so wholly fantastical that it must be unreasonable, belonging to the province of fools, held by the weak-minded, and may indeed pose a danger to reasonable society.
In response to this, Benedict notes that this approach may indeed come from an intention respectful of what seems to be appropriate to a supreme being. However, when examined closely, the intention reveals that we think too little of God and of His regard for reality and the human person, seeing these in all too human terms and thus imagining God “as a consciousness like ours, which has limits, must somewhere or other call a halt, and can never embrace the whole” (146). To correct this, he quotes an aphorism from the German poet, Friedrich Holderlin: “Not to be encompassed by the greatest, but to let oneself be encompassed by the smallest – that is divine.” Benedict explains:
“The boundless spirit who bears in himself the totality of Being reaches beyond the ‘greatest’, so that to him it is small and he reaches into the smallest, because to him nothing is too small. Precisely this overstepping of the greatest and reaching down into the smallest is the true nature of absolute spirit...To him who as spirit upholds and encompasses the universe, a spirit, a man’s heart with its ability to love, is greater than all the milky ways in the universe. Quantitative criteria become irrelevant; other orders of magnitude become visible, according to which the infinitely small is the truly embracing and truly great” (pp. 146-147).
It is an old but rather under-appreciated view that the perspective, judgments, and actions of the Divine are not necessarily those of the human person. The Holy Scriptures and our faith remind us of this consistently, particularly concerning the Trinitarian nature of God, the Incarnation, and the salvific act.
In the early stages of my faith journey, I met many who considered such matters as unnecessary to the faith of good people, theological sandbars of which people must beware lest they run aground in their efforts to be good. On the contrary, I have always been glad that the things of the faith “get in my way.” For they draw me away from the shoals of the so-called reasonable and appropriate things of this world and help me pursue those treasures that await all who fill their sails with the fullness of the faith. There is always more to the human person and to God than meet the eye. We should be careful not to limit the horizon of our views concerning reality, the human person, and God, but ever to widen our sight of these through taking on His mind, His will, His truth, and His love.
Does this, then, soften my discomfort with the depiction of Jesus Christ in “The Chosen”, or, for that matter, with any media presentation of our Lord? Perhaps this is the wrong question. For I find, in light of the preceding, that their defects are heightened, but not unto critique. Rather, they bring me to wonder more intently upon God, reality, the human person, and especially the person of Jesus Christ; I do not rest in the harbors of their necessary imperfections but navigate all the more the dynamic seas that lead to my true rest.
By uniting theology with prayer and sanctity, we draw ourselves ever closer to the One who loved us first. And by embracing what to the worldly mind is but foolishness and reflecting especially upon all that the Incarnation suffered for us, we arrive, through a love that knows no equal, at our salvation. In this we then enjoy, among other things, the opportunity to see our true worth and the true nature of God Himself and so enter fully into the joy of Easter.