JUNE 28, 2005; ST IRENAEUS: GEN 19:15-29; MT 8:23-27

WHAT KIND OF A MAN IS THIS THAT EVEN THE WINDS AND THE SEA OBEY HIM? This question arose in the minds of the first apostles of the Lord with an urgency that persisted in the Church for centuries. Much subtle analysis and hard thinking were expended on this pressing issue before a way of answering could be found that satisfied sufficiently to unite the faithful in a peaceful acceptance. For one thing words were not available that could adequately convey a reply that did justice to the reality of his person in all its manifestations and dimensions. Meantime, a whole series of answers was forthcoming by various persons from whom the question demanded a response. In his own lifetime Jesus was said o be a deceiver by the religious authorities and the rulers of his people; they managed to explain away the clear evidence that his followers saw as proof that he had a special relation with God.

That Matthew who recorded the event that gave rise to this question was convinced that Jesus was more than man is evident from his choice of words. He describes the storm, not as a tempest or hurricane but as a ‘seismos’, an earthquake. The only other occasion that he uses this term is at the death of Jesus on the cross (27:9), when he associates it with the return to life of certain of the saints. He indicates in this way that both these events point beyond themselves to the end time when all initiative comes from God. Secondly, he does not say that Jesus ‘calmed’ the wind and the sea but that he ‘rebuked’ them, showing his right to command their service. This is a power that Ps. 107.29 ascribes to God. So in the choice of his words Matthew indicates that Jesus, while being a man, acts in the same way and with the same power as God.

It is not easy for us to appreciate the difficulties confronting Jesus’ contemporaries as they encountered his claims o be on with the Father and the witness he bore to the resurrection of the body. This remained true after he rose from the dead. Even though faith in the reality was sure and strong, the concepts and corresponding words did not exist in a manner as to give an account to reason that indicated how he could be truly man and at the same time God himself while maintaining that there is but one God. No ancient thinker or school of philosophy had come up with the concept of person as such. And the New Testament writers felt no need to give a rational explanationin speaking of the Father, Son and Spirit, assigning distinct relations to them while indicating their unity. They were satisfied to follow a deep intuited conviction They do not call them ‘persons’; nor do they speak of anyone as a person in the strict meaning of that term. The word ‘prosopon’ that later on came to be used to signify person in Greek meant ‘face’ or ‘mask’ at that period. Only when confronted with the reality of Jesus was the term ‘person’ used as a technical term in theology (Tertullian, Adv. Praxeas 12:27), about two centuries after the birth of our Lord. It was not given an ontological definition until some centuries later when Boethius defined person as ‘an individual substance of a rational nature’.His definition was slightly modified in time; it does not indicate that intrinsic to the concept of person is relation: a person can be defined as a substantial relation having a rational nature. That means a person is an end in herself, the concrete expression of a free, spiritual being. As such, a person possesses an intrinsic dignity that is the basis of human rights.

All this can seem quite abstract, even recondite, however important in the transmission of the faith. That is the point I wish to make. Only by the most strenuous efforts on he part of great minds in answer to views that falsely interpreted the teachings of Scripture was it possible to give a rational account to the question asked at the beginning of these comments: WHAT KIND OF A MAN IS THIS THAT EVEN THE WINDS AND THE SEA OBEY HIM? The faith was preserved for centuries by men and women who firmly believed that Jesus was a divine man, without being able to clarify exactly how he could be fully divine and fully human, not in a position to grasp clearly that he is a divine person with a human and a divine nature each of which preserves its integrity. Meantime, there were many false interpretations by Gnostics, by Arians, by those who said Jesus’ body was but an appearance, not real. St Irenaeus who was taught the faith by St Polycarp who, in turn, had received his formation from St John in Ephesus, successfully defended the true interpretation against the Gnostics, providing extended and persuasive arguments that furthered the understanding of the Incarnation in answer to or question. WHAT KIND OF A MAN IS THIS THAT EVEN THE WINDS AND THE SEA OBEY HIM? The Church was to make use of reason based on the instinct of the living faith, imparted by the Holy Spirit dwelling in them to assure fidelity to the full reality of revelation . This faith and the action of the Spirit in the heart is what reveals to us who Jesus truly is. Explanations come later. Love manifested by trusting faith creates the relation with the Lord that alone discloses the meaning he has for us. It is this same trusting love that opens our heart to him as he gives himself to us as our Savior, here in this Eucharist.

Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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