The Divinity of Christ, the Papacy, and 1.5 million young people
Like all Catholics and indeed most Christians all over the world, the 1.5 million young people who gathered with the Pope for World Youth Day in Madrid listened to the Gospel passage from Matthew 16:13-20.
The story begins with Jesus asking the disciples, ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’ The disciples tell Jesus that others are calling him John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the prophets. If we were to ask people in 2011 in Australia, Spain, or perhaps any other country in the Western world, the actual answers would be different but the sentiment would be basically the same: popular opinion now as then considers Jesus to be a wise figure, a guru, a noble teacher – and that’s all.
In fact, as I listen to people today the most common position is probably summed up by the title of Philip Pullman’s book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ: Jesus was a good guy, noble, nice and now very dead. As far as Pullman and indeed many of our contemporaries are concerned, the divinity of Jesus is a fantasy dreamt up by the Church at a much later date and a terrible distortion of what the ‘real’ Jesus was on about.
In the Gospel though Jesus is not content with popular opinion. He wants an answer from the people who have walked with him, from those he has chosen and called to follow him. And so he asks the disciples, ‘Who do you say I am?’. We’re told that Peter then spoke up. I think that implies a deathly silence after Jesus asked the question. No one was game to speak for a moment or two. And then Peter declared, ‘you are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’
It would be a mistake to think that Peter’s profession of faith here means that he understood precisely what Son of God meant in the technical language that would be used in the 4th century to define Jesus’ divinity. It’s anachronistic to think that Peter had access to language that the bishops at the Council of Nicaea employed to unequivocally affirm the divinity of Christ in AD 325 in the statement popularly known as the Nicene Creed. But that’s precisely the point: the bishops at Nicaea weren’t saying something new about Jesus when they declared that Jesus is ‘the Only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages’. They were expressing the consistent faith of Christians from Peter down to their own time.
What the bishops were trying to do in AD 325 was to clearly articulate the Church’s belief in Jesus’ divinity because a man named Arius had denied it, and so the Church needed to re-state what Christians had always believed. As a consequence they came up with the statement above and the following to describe what Christians believe about Jesus:
God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God,
begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father;
through him all things were made.
From Peter to Nicaea to our own time: to be a Christian is to believe that Jesus is the Son of God. It means that in the man Jesus of Nazareth God is completely and uniquely present. Our faith hangs on this, because our faith is based not simply on Jesus’ teaching, but on who he is. If Jesus is only a human being, then what he says might be interesting, it might be profound, but his teaching can be no more important than the legacy of any other teacher, leader or prophet. But if Jesus really is divine, then his teaching is universally valid and relevant for every human being. More than that, if Jesus really is divine then it is through him that we are able to share in the very life of God.
Many of Peter’s contemporaries found this to be a scandalous claim. People today find it scandalous too. It is the ‘scandal’ at the heart of the Christian faith. But as the encounter between Peter and Jesus tells us, to believe that Jesus is the Son of God is ultimately the result of God’s revelation, of God’s self-giving communication that resounds in the hearts of those who are open to it.
What has this got to do with a gathering of 1.5 million young people in Madrid this weekend? Simply this: that in Benedict XVI the successor of Peter is still speaking up, still declaring, in spite of many voices that ridicule and deride him for doing so, that Jesus is divine. This is the deepest purpose of the papacy: to profess, in continuity with Peter’s declaration, that Jesus is the Son of God… and to invite others to do the same.