Jesus of Nazareth. He lived over 2,000 years ago, in the backwaters of the Roman Empire, spoke a language that no longer exists, and practised his religion as a pious Jew. How did this obscure man become the single most influential person in human history?
The story of Jesus Christ begins not with His conception and birth, but rather in eternity past. One of his biographers wrote, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (Jn 1:1). Before time was created, the Son of God and Word of the Father existed, always.
“When the fulness of time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman…” (Gal 4:4). The God-of-God and Light-of-Light, in time, was clothed in human nature through His conception and birth from the Virgin Mary. Here the most wonderful event of human history took place: God became Man. The archangel Gabriel was sent by God the Father to a young Jewish woman named Mary and told her that she would be the mother of her Creator. The event of the Incarnation–the ‘enfleshment’–of God the Son meant that the Divine Nature would be joined to human nature in order to heal humanity of its infirmities of sin and death. The Incarnation is a central event in the life of Jesus, and the Church recalls this mystery every year on 25 March when she celebrates the “Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord.”
Why did God become Man? The Word becoming flesh is called the ‘Incarnation.’ The very bodily life of the God-Man is called the ‘Sacred Humanity’ of Jesus. St Gregory the Theologian explains why God became Man, why the Word assumed (= ‘taken up’) a Sacred Humanity: “That which was not assumed is not healed; but that which is united to God is saved.” In the past, humanity was separated from God by an infinitely large gap. Because of the Incarnation, the one Person of Jesus Christ–having both fully human and a fully divine nature–closed the gap between God and humanity. The Creator and the creature became bridged together by the Incarnate Word, the God-Man, Jesus Christ.
Nativity and Childhood
When the archangel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would be the mother of Jesus, she was already engaged to a widower named Joseph. Together they travelled to Bethlehem of Judea in order to complete a census ordered by the Roman emperor, and there Mary gave birth to Jesus, in a stable. On that holy night, the Creator of all was born to a poor family, in a cave, and laid to rest in a manger. Though He was a King, the newborn was visited by the humblest of all–farm animals, a few shepherds, and angels. “I bring you news of great joy for all the peoples,” the angels told certain shepherds; “today a Saviour has been born to you, Christ the Lord.” Later, the family returned to their home-city of Nazareth to raise the boy Jesus as a faithful Jew where he prayed every day and attended the synagogue on the sabbath. Almost nothing is known about the childhood of Jesus, so this period is often called the “Hidden Years.” But we do know that God the Father was preparing Him for His future life and work.
We know nothing about the childhood of Jesus except for one thing. At the age of twelve, Jesus’ family travelled to Jerusalem for the Passover festival, as every good Jewish believer did. On the way back to Nazareth, Joseph and Mary discovered Jesus missing–they thought he was playing with his cousins or other friends.
Worried, Jesus’ parents returned to Jerusalem to look for him. After three days, they went into the Temple and discovered Jesus talking to the rabbis and teachers of the Law. The twelve-year-old Jesus astonished His elders by his comments. Because He was God the Son, Jesus already had the profound knowledge that His elders took years to acquire.
Baptism and Temptation in the Desert
When Jesus was about thirty years old, He began His life’s work. At the Jordan River, He met his cousin, St John the Forerunner, and was baptised. Immediately “the heavens were opened” and St John the Forerunner saw a dove come down and rest on Jesus’ shoulder, a sign of the Holy Spirit’s presence in the life of Jesus. Then God the Father said, “This is my beloved Son!”
Immediately after His baptism, Jesus was “led by the Spirit” into the desert where he fasted and prayed for 40 days. During this time, the devil tempted Him three times, first by trying to convince Jesus to use His power to turn stones into bread for food, second by jumping off the roof of the temple and using his miraculous powers to “show off” His divinity, and thirdly receiving all the kingdoms of the world in exchange for worshiping the devil. Though He was as human as He was God, Jesus Christ was able to resist temptation. When He successfully resisted the devil, Jesus was able to continue His time of prayer and fasting in order to prepare Himself for His public ministry. In Catholic Tradition, the “Public Life” of Jesus began at His baptism, because it was then that the world experienced His life and teachings.
For about two and a half years, Jesus spent His time teaching about God’s love and desire to be friends with us, about the Kingdom of God, and about holiness. Jesus taught in many different ways: sometimes He lectured; sometimes He told stories; sometimes He performed a miracle to illustrate a point.
During this time, Jesus appointed twelve men to accompany Him in His Public Life–the Apostles. An ‘apostle’ is someone who is sent as a representative. Jesus chose these twelve men in order to establish the “New Israel”, similar to the twelve sons of Jacob from whom the twelve tribes of Israel are descended. To these Apostles, Jesus entrusted His teachings and His authority to govern the Church.
And He did establish a Church. In the spring of A.D. 29, Jesus took the Apostles to Caesarea Philippi and asked, “Who do people say that I am?” The Apostles told Jesus what others thought of Him. But He challenged them, “Who do you say that I am?” St Peter, who became the leader, answered: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” In reply, Jesus told Peter that he was correct because God the Father had revealed it; as a result, Jesus said, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven…” Thus Jesus founded the Church, established it on the faith and person of St Peter, and gave him (and the other Apostles) the authority to govern the Church.
Soon came a turning-point. Jesus took three of the most important Apostles–Sts Peter, James, and John–and led them up a mountain. Then the strangest thing happened: Jesus’ face and clothing was changed. His tunic became brilliantly white; His face “shone like the sun”; and two prophets of the Old Testament–who had been dead nearly a thousand years–appeared and spoke to Jesus: Moses and Elijah. The three of them talked about an event that would take place soon–the death of Jesus.
The event was witnessed by Peter, James, and John, and they were deeply puzzled by its meaning. Afterward, Jesus ordered them not to tell anyone what they had seen until after He had been risen from the dead. Even then, they did not understand, but still they obediently kept silent about the Transfiguration. From that time onward, Jesus set out towards Jerusalem, knowing that He was going to die there, and soon.
Jesus had done many things in the meantime. He raised the dead, fed the hungry, challenged an oppressive religious authority, and taught people about the ‘Gospel’ or the good news. But the full meaning of Jesus’ life and teachings would not make full sense until after His death.
The Great Three Days
Soon Jesus’ life was coming to an end. Jesus knew that His death would arrive quickly. One Thursday evening, Jesus hosted a special meal with His friends, the “Last Supper.” Near the end of the supper, Jesus took bread and said, “This is My body, which will be given up for you.” Then he took wine and said, “This is My blood, which will be shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this in memory of Me.” Jesus knew that on the next day, Friday, He would be killed. Though He explained it many times to His friends, they failed to understand Him. This meal–the Eucharist–was Jesus’ parting gift to His friends. It would be the “Gift of God par excellence” and would be celebrated countless times over the centuries as a memorial of Jesus’ death.
And He did die. After supper, Jesus’ and His Apostles went into a garden to pray, and there Jesus was arrested. During the night and through the next morning, Jesus went through several hasty trials and was condemned to death. Because He was not a Roman citizen, the most gruesome torture and execution awaited Him: flogging and crucifixion. From noon on Friday until three o’clock, Jesus hung upon the Cross, enduring the hot sun, suffering humiliation, excruciating pain, and jeers from the crowds. His Apostles abandoned Him, except for St John the Evangelist; His mother and some of His women disciples stayed with Jesus. When Jesus died, a rich man offered to take down the body of Jesus and bury Him in one of his own graves. This man was St Joseph of Arimathea.
The body of Jesus was quickly prepared for burial–because in Jewish Law, no work could be done after sundown on Friday–and He was sealed in the tomb. His friends left the grave full of sorrow and confusion. Jesus had warned them many times that this would happen, but they did not understand. His friends had such high hopes for soon-to-arrive Kingdom of God. What was going to happen now? Would everyone go back to their old lives as if nothing special had happened?
On the “Great Sabbath,” now known as “Great and Holy Saturday,” Jesus lay asleep in death. But His soul was alive. The God-Man had a tremendous work to do. Jesus Christ, true God and true Man, eternally-begotten of the Father went into hell and took away the devil’s dominion. The power of sin and death was abolished. The chains of hell were shattered, and eternal life became a reality. St Melito of Sardis–a bishop who was acquainted with the Apostles–narrates the story of Christ’s descent into hell:
God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.
He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, He has gone to gree from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, He who is both God and the son of Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the Cross, the weapon that had won Him the victory. At the sight of Him Adam, the first man He had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: “My Lord be with you all!” Christ answered him: “And with your spirit.” He took him by the right hand and raised him up, saying: “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.”
“I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and for your descendants I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the Life of the dead. Rise up, work of My hands, you who were created in My image. Rise, let us leave this place…
“Rise, let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise. I will not restore you to that paradise, but I will enthrone you in heaven. I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am Life itself am now one with you…”
Very early the next morning, the strangest thing happened: Jesus Christ returned to life again. He rose from the grave and left it empty. Thus the first Easter. He then showed himself to St Mary Magdalene, one of His women-disciples and the first evangelist. She met the Risen Christ and ran to tell His Apostles the Good News: “Christ is risen!” For that reason she has been called the “Apostle to the Apostles.”
For forty days, the risen Jesus Christ appeared to His friends, talking with them, eating with them, and strengthening their hearts for faith. But He would not always be visible in this way. “I will give you another advocate,” Jesus told the Apostles. “The Spirit of Truth…” The gift of the Holy Spirit would be imparted to the Apostles ten days after Jesus ascended into heaven.
When the Holy Spirit was poured out on the Apostles, the Church was inaugurated. The message was proclaimed, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the Name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit,” said St Peter.
For over two thousand years, the Catholic Church has continued the mission of Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit.
What is this mission? The mission is, quite simply, the invitation to friendship with God. And today, now, Jesus Christ, through the Catholic Church, extends to you that same invitation. “This is eternal life, to know You, the one true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.”