Quote of the Day from Douthat Beach Reading

The Jew of Nazareth is a paradoxical character. No figure in history or fiction contains as many multitudes as the New Testament’s Jesus. He’s a celibate ascetic who enjoys dining with publicans and changing water into wine at weddings. He’s an apocalyptic prophet one moment, a wise ethicist the next. He’s a fierce critic of Jewish religious law who insists that he’s actually fulfilling rather than subverting it. He preaches a reversal of every social hierarchy while deliberating avoiding explicitly political claims. He promises to set parents against children and then disallows divorce; he consorts with prostitutes while denouncing even lustful thoughts. He makes wild claims about his own relationship to God, and perhaps his own divinity, without displaying any of the usual signs of megalomania or madness. He can be egalitarian and hierarchical, gentle and impatient, extraordinarily charitable and extraordinarily judgmental. He sets impossible standards and then forgives the worst of sinners. He blesses the peacemakers and then promises that he’s brought not peace but the sword. He’s superhuman one moment; the next he’s weeping.

Bad Religion‘s chapter about the “quest(s) for the historical Jesus” made me laugh with delight and cry with sweet consolation.

If you don’t have time to read the (impressively erudite) book right now, the moral of this chapter is: Jesus, the Church, and the canonical gospels (and the whole New Testament) go together like love and marriage and a horse and carriage. If you want to get in touch with the “Jesus of history,” you do well to begin by reciting the Nicene Creed.

Why was Christ Baptized? (The LONG answer)

Today the Church commemorates the occasion on which John baptized Christ. This commemoration inevitably gives rise to the question: Why did Jesus go to John to be baptized? After all, Christ did not need to repent of sin and be cleansed.

Confronted with this eminently reasonable question, I have frequently proposed the following: The waters of John’s baptism did not cleanse Christ. To the contrary, by going into the Jordan, Christ conferred on water the capacity to give saving grace through the sacrament of Holy Baptism.

I have not and do not propose this answer by myself. Countless saintly catechists of the past have proposed as much, including St. Ambrose of Milan. And I do not propose this as the answer, but rather as an answer—i.e., a true, though not exhaustive, answer.

Here, however, is the problem. The response I give can be greeted in three ways.

1. Accepted as coherent.

2. Accepted as a viable statement of Catholic piety, but dismissed as far as being an historically defensible assertion.

3. Rejected as a kind of theological fantasy that does not correspond with the facts of history.

If your reaction is #1, feel free to give up on this little essay, which will doubtless prove to be tedious.

Continue reading “Why was Christ Baptized? (The LONG answer)”


Often we are confronted by ideas that seem to contradict each other. For instance: “Did you hear? So-and-so did something awful.” Then someone says, “I sure love so-and-so. She is a wonderful person.” Or: “So-and-so promised me this.” Someone else says: “So-and-so promised me the exact same thing.”

We make our world a more peaceful place by assuming that apparent contradictions can be reconciled somehow. The humble person assumes: These statements only appear contradictory because I do not properly understand them. If only I knew more, or were more insightful–then I would see the truth on both sides.

This is called being irenic, peace-making. It is usually a virtue. But not always.

Someone once told the Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor that it is more open-minded to think that the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar is a great, wonderful, powerful symbol. Her response was, “If it’s a symbol, to hell with it.”

Recently, the following conversation took place. (I am not making this story up. An eye-witness recounted it to me.)

A six-year-old said to his father, “Daddy, I am Jewish.”

“Yeah, buddy. So am I,” replied the loving father.

“But I believe that Jesus is the Son of God.”

“…Okay…Okay. That’s great. I believe that he was a great man, a great teacher.”

Who knows what will come of this boy’s profession of faith in Christ. Only God knows. I have no idea how to comment on the boy’s remarkable statement. What I am getting at is: The good father’s response was deft and irenic, surely aimed at keeping family peace. (The boy has three Jewish grandparents and one Christian.) The problem is that it makes no sense.

The father seems to believe in a mythical Jesus. The father thinks that somehow Jesus can be BOTH the second Person of the Blessed Trinity for Christians AND a great man for everyone else. But BOTH…AND does not work in this case.

The mythical “Both…and… Jesus” was invented by nineteenth-century Scripture scholars. Some of these scholars proposed that the four gospels in the New Testament include made-up details. Therefore it is supposedly necessary to “de-code” the gospels and find the truth. Then you can come up with a Jesus who can be BOTH the Messiah AND a great teacher with no delusions of grandeur. This “scholarship,” however, has been exposed for what it truly is: An exercise in creative writing which always results in a Jesus with exactly the ideas that the author wants Him to have.

Book of the Holy Gospels
Book of the Holy Gospels
In truth, to know Jesus–to know what He really said–we must read the four Holy Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. What do we find? We find that EITHER Jesus is the divine Messiah, OR he was a terrible liar or a lunatic.

In a nutshell, this is what He said: “I am the Son of God Who has come to reveal the love of the Father by dying for your sins. Therefore, do not judge others. Leave judgement to Me. Rather, repent of your own sins. Then give yourself over to the humble service of God and neighbor. My grace will sustain you, if you stay close to Me.”

If Christ is not divine, to hell with him–because he was a madman.

But He is divine.