A man’s life is a weft of happenings of every sort. People and things are there, friendly and hostile, close or alien. They work their influence; they hinder or further. Man comes to grips with the realities of the world; he has dealings; he acts, creates, and experiences his destiny. This plethora of elements is all drawn together by what we call his personality. Here is something very important: what is the total impression this man makes?
There are different ways of looking at this.
One man’s career appears to us like the lifespan of a tree, at first visibly growing out of the ground, then gently unfolding itself, gradually reaching its full growth, and dying. In such a person, there is a hardy contemporaneousness drawn from the outside world: he finds himself at home there.
Another gives us the impression that he is looking for his mission in life, finds and occupies his post, works, struggles, and after he has done his duty, he drops away.
And again there is the restless type, ever seeking, ever in transit, incapable of living any other way but through danger and discovery.
There is the man of destiny, in close touch with whatever moves in the very womb of being; such a one waits, makes his encounter, grows to great stature or shatters, perseveres, and bears his burden.
The ultimate figure cut by the life of our Lord does not belong in any of these categories. If we read the Gospels in a connected way and look for the reverberations of His person in the Acts of the Apostles and the apostolic letters, and then ask ourselves, “Just what was He like?” we sense something quite special: something that eludes classification. Perhaps we may best express it with the words “He passed by.” The shape and form of Jesus’ being is a passage.
This fact is expressed right off by how very little we know about Him. St. John says at the end of his Gospel that if all that Jesus had said and done were to be written, the world itself could not contain the books that would thus be filled. Thus the apostle must have been aware of an awesome abundance of being within Jesus. Behind every moment, every word, every act of this being, there stood infinite intensity, measureless content.
But what has been passed on concerning Him is not very much. If we draw together the accounts in the Synoptic Gospels — those of the first three evangelists, who give a simultaneously witnessed report of Christ — with whatever else is said that is new, if we take the very special things St. John says and the little that can be found in the Acts of the Apostles: all this put together is really not very much! Of the first years of His life we learn of a few youthful episodes. Then eighteen years are wrapped in silence. His effectiveness in public is presented under a very bright light; but it lasts only three years — some say very little more than one year. Then it is all over. This life comes out of the silent unknown, shines briefly and mightily, then returns to the unknown reaches of Heaven.
Jesus Himself speaks of this coming and going. “It is for this that I have come,” He says when it is a question of His not staying where He is, but going rather “to the next country towns.” In Matthew, three times in a row He says, “I have come to . . .”; this phrase occurs frequently in other passages.
In the Gospel according to St. John, this awareness comes out very strongly, more so than anywhere else. Time after time: “I have come”; and, “After a little while, you will see me no longer”; “I am going away to prepare a home for you”; “Whither I go you cannot come.”
This feeling that He comes, passes by, and then disappears is even stronger on those occasions when He mentions where He is from and where He is going: “From on high”; “from the Father”; again “back to the Father”; where the “everlasting dwellings” are. “It was from the Father that I came, when I entered the world, and now I am leaving the world, and going on my way to the Father.”
That particular interior character shows also in the manner of His life. He lived as an itinerant teacher, which in those times was not at all uncommon. Without any real home, He went from place to place, instructed, held conversation with the people there, and stayed wherever anyone would have Him. He was deeply, intensely aware that this was His state in life. When the young man asked if he might follow Him, He answered, “Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air their resting places; the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.”
He must often have been well received. We are put in mind chiefly of that house He loved, the house of Lazarus and his sisters, in Bethany.
But sometimes it did not go so well with Him, as on the occasion when Simon the Pharisee invited Him. Immediately we sense ambush. He was not hospitably received; He was “surrounded.” When the woman came up to Him and wept at His feet, dried them with her hair, and anointed them with precious ointment, the master of the house displayed contemptuous scorn: “If He were a true prophet, He would know what sort of woman this was!” Then Jesus turned to the host: “Simon, there is something I have to say to thee. I came into thy house; thou gavest me no water for my feet; thou embraced me not; thou gavest me no oil upon my head for anointing.” He meant, “You did not fulfill the most elementary obligations of hospitality for me.” We would say that the company simply did not receive Him. And it is most affecting to read how this courtesy was bestowed on Him by someone rejected by this same company.
The True Figure of Christ
But did He not have a home with His own, in the understanding of His disciples, in the fidelity of those who were His followers?
One fact stands out very clearly in the Gospels, a painful one, all the more true for having been recognized by the Apostles themselves in the light of their subsequent inspired insights: the disciples did not understand Him. Often St. Luke writes, “But they could not understand what He said; it was hidden from them so that they could not perceive the meaning of it.”
Again and again this is plainly indicated, now in words, now in manner, now in deed. St. John says, “In Him there was life, and that life was the light of men. And the light shines in darkness, which was not able to master it.” The light wanted to come streaming out of Him, to make men’s hearts and minds clear, but, like a great wall, the darkness stood round about Him, the darkness of nonunderstanding. He was full of life, ready at all times to pour it into men’s hearts, but they were shut against it.
And what about love, fidelity? One betrayed Him; another denied under oath ever having known Him; and in the end, the rest all fled — even John. Even John abandoned Him at first, but then he returned and stood his ground. No, the feeling of home given by a protective understanding, where word and deed find their proper sanctuary, and fidelity which endures unshaken: these comforts were not for Him. There, too, “the Son of Man had nowhere to lay His head.”
It is an expression of this always being on the outside of things when we read again and again that He went forth to pray, by Himself alone, in the quiet of the night, on a high mountain. At such time, He is in that same sphere out of which He emerged to begin His public mission. Then hardly had He been baptized in the Jordan when St. Mark tells us, “And immediately the Spirit drove Him into the desert.” The Spirit “drove Him,” as if by force, away from the community of mankind, out, into the desert. And in order that we know without any mistake what that represents, the Gospel says further, “And He was in the desert forty days and forty nights . . . and He was with beasts.” And there in the solitude, out of touch with everything that had to do with men, the Tempter sought Him out.
Most affecting is that scene after the Last Supper, when He was going out of the city with His disciples, and crossing over the brook Kidron, on His way up to the Mount of Olives. There He left the group behind Him, taking along only the three; once again He asked them to wait, going on alone “a stone’s throw off.”
This was the figure our Lord cut during His earthly life, the character of His “passage.”
When we come up close to someone, we look at him. And we not only look over his exterior, to see what he looks like, what his name or identity might be, where he comes from, from what walk of life, but we probe also with an interior glance: “Who are you?” Not only, “What manner of man are you?” — to know what to expect of him; but the more searching “Who are you?” — to know him truly, to come close to him in an interior way, to meet him face-to-face, eye-to-eye.
In the same way, we are to ask the Lord, “Who art Thou?” We do not know very much if we know only the words and the episodes handed down to us concerning Him. We do not know very much if we carry a picture of Him in our mind as a ceremonial, somewhat unreal, indefinite figure with long hair and a robe with many folds. All that is only a phantom, a delusion. His whole being must ring in our hearts with blood and bone. We must follow Him. We must strive to penetrate into the heart of His mystery, to what He really is. Then things become plain to us, as we have found them here.
Editor’s note: This article is from a chapter in Fr. Guardini’s Meditations on the Christ, and is available from Sophia Institute Press.