The Idler: The Life Larger than all Lives

There is for the Christian no deeper desire, just as there is for us no fairer hope, than that one day—at last—each of us will meet Jesus.

Something of what the ultimate experience will be has been hinted to sundry of the saints in their glimpses of the Beatific Vision, as to others have come the ecstasies of the appearance of Mary. But for all there is the pledge expressed by the disciple for whom even the privilege of having lain upon the breast of the Incarnate Savior, or even the bliss of the revelations of Patmos, were not to be compared to the final promise: “It does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that, when He shall appear, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.” Oh, “now we see through a glass, darkly,” as Saint Paul observed; “but then, face to face: now I know in part, but then shall I know even as also I am known.” To be allowed—and to be able—to look into Those Eyes, to hear That Voice, and perhaps to stroll leisurely along the shore of some eternal sea, conversing of life with the Lord of Life: is it not this for which we strive, this (and so inexpressibly and unimaginably more) for which we are being prepared?

They left their nets, and followed Him.” Even in their ignorance, even when He had “no form or comeliness that men should desire Him,” the fishermen of Galilee recognized in Jesus of Nazareth the manifestation of the deep unutterable longings of their heart, and the embodiment of their inarticulate but insistent aspiration. Do not each of us experience the poignant dilemma of Peter: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man,” and yet “Lord, to Whom [else] shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Is not this always our fullest confession and our grandest confidence: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive You, but only say the word, and I shall be healed”?

To the believing heart and mind, there is no more powerful and illuminating literature than the accounts of the life of Jesus Christ bequeathed through Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. And yet, so pregnant are each of the passages of these modest little treatises that whole volumes have been written, and no doubt till the end of time will be written, in the passionate endeavor to know more, and state more, and apprehend more, and finally to be conformed more to, the life of Jesus.

Ironically, the first “Life of Jesus” in the narrative biographical form now familiar to modern readers was a skeptical, and at the time of its appearance in 1836 a scandalous, work, the Life of Jesus by the German David Strauss. “The intellectual struggles” which Strauss’s work expressed for the German mind were engaged almost immediately by Augustus Neander, whose 1837 work, The Life of Jesus Christ is remarkable in many respects, not the least because its author was a Jewish convert to Christian faith. In 1863, the Frenchman Ernest Renan published his Life of Jesus, perhaps the best known and assuredly the most eloquent of the generally skeptical studies of its Subject.

So challenged was the English mind by the “lives” wrought by Strauss and Renan, that the first (1866) edition of Ecce Homo by Sir John Seeley did not bear the author’s name; ’twas deemed not politic to own the opinions his trembling volume proposed. And then there is of course, finally, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1910), by Albert Schweitzer, and such of its successors as Jesus by C. Guignebert, or The Life of Jesus by M. Goguel, or the internationally renowned Jesus of Nazareth, by the German Gunther Bornkhamm, hailed at its appearance in 1956 as “an event in the intellectual history of our time.” This line of inquiry, consistent with and to a degree dependent upon the methods of (mere) historical research, has been admirably encompassed by John Dominic Crossan in his recent The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (1991).

But as rewarding intellectually as these and similar studies may be, they are not to be compared with expositions of the life of Jesus which crown intellectual rigor and discipline with the indispensable spiritual quality of faith. There is in this regard no finer “Life of Jesus,” and no more intellectually enriching and spiritually edifying work, than The Lord, by Romano Guardini (1954). In 86 short but elegant chapters, extending to 535 pages, the late Monsignor Guardini provided an exposition of the life and teachings of Jesus that constitutes one of the singular reading experiences of a lifetime. My own topical index of the unfortunately-not-indexed great work demonstrates that Guardini touched upon every aspect of Jesus’ life and legacy. One can expect to take to one’s knees upon reluctantly coming to the climactic page. Such passages as these abound in Guardini’s great Life:

. . .in the agony of Gethsemane the ultimate consequences of our sin had their hour. Not before we have surrendered ourselves to the dreadfulness of that hour will we understand, really, what sin is. In the measure that we comprehend sin, we comprehend Christ; and we comprehend our own sin only in the measure that we experience what He experienced when He sweated blood in the night. . . . He knows with His human intellect, feels the world’s forlornness with His human heart. And the sorrow of it, incapable of ripping the eternal God from His bliss, becomes in Christ’s human soul unutterable agony. From this knowledge comes a terrible and unrelenting earnestness, knowledge that underlies every word He speaks and everything He does. It pulses through His whole being and proclaims itself in the least detail of His fate. Here lies the root of Christ’s inapproachable loneliness. What human understanding and sympathy could possibly reach into this realm in which the Savior shoulders alone the yoke of the world?

For the Catholic, surely the next best Life of Jesus is Jesus and His Times by Henri Daniel-Rops, a Frenchman of the past generation who was editor of the great Twentieth-century Encyclopedia of Catholicism, a series of 150 volumes which includes Daniel-Rops’s own superb condensation of his larger study, The Life of Our Lord (1964).

In 1962, F.J. Sheed issued To Know Christ Jesus, another specifically Catholic work, and one which ably amplifies the Gospels so that readers might all-the-more clearly “see the Face which looks out from them upon men.” Two other specifically Catholic accounts of Jesus’ life possess an almost unbearable beauty. These are by the late Nobel laureate, Francois Mauriac. In The Son of Man (1957), Mauriac meditates upon his “tragic vision of contemporary man through the figure of Christ at Bethlehem, in the hidden life, on the Cross, and after the Resurrection.” But it is in his Life of Jesus, written in 1936, that Mauriac even more poetically presents the Jesus who is “our brother covered with wounds, our God”:

Until the end he would delight in those who preferred Him to their defilement;

On the shore of this ocean of suffering the Son of God accepted, through humility, the comfort of being loved by those He loved [this love coming, Mauriac explains, from the family of Bethany consisting of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus];

While there exists a ray of hope in the most guilty soul, it is separated from infinite love by only a sigh. And it is the mystery of mysteries that the son of perdition [Judas] did not heave that sigh;

. . .above all tyranny, there was raised [on Golgotha] the power of Him who is recognized by free man as his only Lord on earth and in heaven. Thenceforth, although the human conscience would still be subjected to the worst violence, it would none the less be free; all martyrdom touches the body, but throughout the centuries the power of the State would end on the threshold of a sanctified soul.

Though Reformed and even Calvinistic in doctrine, the Scottish pulpit—owing no doubt to the mystical sensibility possessed by the Celtic kinsmen of the Catholic Irish—has created an astonishing number of lives of Jesus that are characterized by literary beauty and spiritual force.

The most straightforward is The Incarnate Savior (1911), by Sir William Robertson Nicoll (1851-1923), who at the height of his career was the most influential Christian editor and literary critic in the English-speaking world.

The mystical quality of the Scottish soul in its love of Christ is nowhere more pronounced or scintillating than in Studies of the Portrait of Christ (1899) by George Matheson, who was for many years minister of the parish of Saint Bernard’s, Edinburgh. (Does not the very name of his church indicate the catholicity of the Scottish spirit?):

The very thought of making an effort to satisfy the holiness of the Father was the boldest idea that ever entered into the heart of man. Every healing act of Jesus was on the lines of this boldness; it was the attempt to glorify the Father by beautifying the creature. Every act confirmed to Jesus the validity of His mission.

And, on the anointing of Jesus at Bethany, Matheson writes, “We do not reach our destiny by the strength with which we started; we should never come near the goal but for the alabaster boxes which, by seeming accident, meet us on the way. No wonder Jesus imputes to this box more than was in it!”

Alexander Whyte (1824-1905), of Saint George’s, Edinburgh, was “the prince of preachers” in the Scotland of the nineteenth century. In The Walk, Conversation, and Character of Jesus Christ Our Lord, Whyte provides what my notes upon completing it in 1986 recall as “a wonderful and blessed experience of reading, enriching of faith, strengthening in grace.”

W.M. Clow, who crowned his pulpit ministry as principal of the United Free Church College in Glasgow, distilled his reflections on Jesus in The Five Portraits of Jesus.

Another Scot, William Malcolm Macgregor, in his Jesus Christ the Son of God: Sermons and Interpretations (1907), collected what are to my knowledge the finest and fullest sermons composed in the modern era on the life and teachings of Jesus. Nowhere is the Scot’s gift for expositing the whole of life from a single text of Scripture—without a trace of the dangers of mere proof-texting—more apparent, or more elegant. Remarking on Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem on the foal of an ass, MacGregor writes:

Jesus availed Himself of [mere drapery] that they might understand that honour was being done to an old dream of the heart of men. For it was so that Jesus conceived of His mission—to meet men in the desire and effort and hope of their hearts. . . . It was Christ’s plan to present Himself in ways which tested the discernment of men, and baffled those who could not believe in a new thing. Plain people of all sorts hailed with delight the appearance of a Teacher whom they could understand—a Man altogether friendly and accessible, who yet seemed to help them near to God; but the men in whom prejudice had usurped the place of sight, saw only a blasphemer whose life was a menace to religion. And that, in itself, is a warning of the risk we run of missing Christ’s intention, which is hidden from the wise and clever, and revealed to the simple in heart.

A contemporary of these Scots was David Smith, a professor in the Presbyterian College, Belfast, Ireland. While minister of a remote parish in Scotland, Smith had been enticed by Nicoll, who was editor of the internationally renowned British Weekly, to answer the attacks upon Christian faith being waged by champions of the Higher Criticism of the Scriptures. In The Days of His Flesh, Smith did so, but tediously. So, 20 years later, in Our Lord’s Earthly Life, Smith abandoned the pedantry of the academy for the precision and passion of the exultant believer. It is a splendid work.

For sheer instruction, complemented by the graceful prose of a master stylist, no work surpasses the two-volume study by the Englishman G. Campbell Morgan, longtime minister of Westminster Chapel, London, and later at Northampton, Massachusetts. These are The Crises of the Christ and The Teaching of Christ. Such passages as these abound: “In the ascension light what Name is this now bestowed upon the all-conquering Man? It is the old Name, full of ineffable music, the Name of Jesus.”

These are but samples of the riches to be found in but a selection from among the scores upon scores of “lives” of Jesus written in the past two centuries. Even a glance at the stacks of other books to hand reveals many other titles of significance. These include A Life of Jesus, by Shusaku Endo, a Japanese novelist and a Catholic—though there are theological and even literary flaws in Endo’s work. Rigorous theologically though lacking the grace usual to his style is The Saviour of the World, by the late great Princeton professor, B.B. Warfield. Jesus: A New Vision, by Marcus J. Borg, is the most accessible and best written of the many new “revisionist” studies of Jesus. The Life and Ministry of Jesus, by Vincent Taylor, is the finest recreation of the historical milieu of Jesus’ life by an author of a mere generation ago. And Jaroslav Pelikan, in Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture (1985), has given us a work that is as informative as it is beautiful in conception and composition. And then there is Dorothy L. Sayers’s poetical play, The Man Born to Be King. . . . Ah, almost forgot the powerful Wrestling with Christ, by Luigi Santucci….

Over a century ago, the English art and social critic John Ruskin, responding to the burgeoning number of lives of Jesus, noted to a reader that, “You have had various `lives of Christ,’ German and other, lately provided among your other severely historical studies. Some, critical; and some, sentimental. But there is only one light by which you can read the life of Christ—the light of the life you now lead in the flesh; and that not the natural, but the won life. ‘Nevertheless, I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.’ ”

Just so.

For those who would learn more of the Jesus Who is at once the central figure of history and the Alpha and the Omega, these few titles from among the vast catalogue of books on His life and teaching will become treasures in any home library. (The Catholic titles should be available from either Thomas Loome of Stillwater, Minnesota, or Andrew Prosser of Chicago; for the Scottish and other Protestant titles, try Kregel’s Bookstore, P.O. Box 2607, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49501). A chapter at a time, one each Sabbath over the course of twenty-some years, they have wondrously fulfilled my own questing, akin to that of the Greeks who said to Philip, “Sir, we would see Jesus.” Yet when all is said and done, they are but the preliminary. For do we not already sing, “What a Friend We Have . . .,” and do we not all sigh, with the psalmist, “Lord, I shall be satisfied when I awake with Thy likeness”? Aye, then. But not ’til then.


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