On a recent trip to Rome many things impressed themselves on me, but one thing stood out. It was, much to my surprise, the bones.
Rome is filled with the graves of Christian martyrs beginning with the apostles Peter and Paul. Beneath the central altar in St. Peter’s Basilica is Peter’s final resting place—not far from where he was crucified by the Roman Emperor Nero.
Across the Tiber River in the church of San Silvestro we saw what is purported to be the skull of John the Baptist. Is it? I don’t know. But I do know that John the Baptist had a skull and a spine and flesh and blood as surely as Peter did and as surely as Jesus did.
Seeing those graves full of bones reminded me in a new way that, as Peter wrote, “We did not follow cleverly invented stories” (2 Peter 1:16). The history of Christianity beginning with the life of Jesus is real. The events of Holy Week and Easter happened.
Of course there are those who disagree. Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong wrote recently about Pope Benedict XVI’s book Jesus of Nazareth: “the Pope’s subtitle proclaimed that his book was designed to ‘cover the life of Jesus from his baptism to the transfiguration,’ words that led me to suspect that the Pope would treat the gospels as accurate historical biographies. He did.”
He did indeed, although it would be more accurate to say that the Pope treats the Gospels as accurate historical gospels, but why quibble? Spong and others like him believe that we need “to look at Jesus through the lens of our contemporary knowledge” sorting out what we will and will not embrace. Benedict believes that when we read the New Testament, we meet the real Jesus and discover what he said and did. In fact, he comes right out and says, “I trust the Gospels.”
I trust the Gospels as well. Without facts about Jesus, without data, we are simply thrown onto our own predilections. And those predilections are blown about by the spirit of the age in which we happen to live. Given the choice, we will happily invent a Jesus who we find agreeable.
Such creative activity is always a temptation—a Jesus we invent is extremely convenient. He believes what we believe. He can be an advocate for whatever we would like to advocate. For example, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in her Easter letter appears to believe that Jesus is as concerned as she is about cow flatulence—what with global warming and all. And why not? If Jesus is a reflection of our own consciousness, then who’s to say that he’s not concerned since he conveniently thinks just the way we do? If he challenges our thinking at all it’s the challenge to live up to our inner (that is, subjective) convictions whatever they may be.
If the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection are nothing more than symbols or metaphors, Jesus is nothing more than an abstraction, an abstraction we can fill with whatever content seems good to us at the time. But if Jesus is accurately portrayed in the Gospels, he is anything but an abstraction. He is the great “I am” who will not be defined by the likes of us.
In celebrating Christ’s Passion, we insist on the facts about Jesus that we find in the Gospels. We have not followed “cleverly invented stories,” but eyewitness accounts of the strangest and most glorious events in history.
God the Son, the second person of the Blessed Trinity, rode into Jerusalem—it’s there on the map—on a real donkey. He bled real blood, suffered real pain, and died a real death, his body laid neatly in a virgin tomb with the full expectation that soon there would be nothing there but bones.
Much to everyone’s surprise he didn’t remain in the tomb long. He is alive! He is risen!
The graves of Christian martyrs are a tangible reminder of the past in which our faith is anchored. It is not a mythical past of cleverly devised stories or a metaphorical past of cleverly devised symbols, but a past in which eyewitnesses have left us their words, their deeds, and their bones.
It’s easy particularly in the modern West to find the facts about Jesus devolving into an abstract, sanitized, ideologically driven caricature of the Jesus presented to us in the Gospels. We are all advocating for something—particularly here in Washington, DC. Holy Week and Easter pull us back from the brink. We remember as have saints and martyrs and just plain Christian folk for two thousand years that these things happened in space and time, in body, blood, and bones. And it is in light of that stark reality that we weep for our sins and stand in awe of unfathomable mercy on Good Friday, and rejoice in the promise of eternal life on Easter.