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A New People of God
It Is Only Within the Experience of Belonging to a People that We Can Discover the Meaning of the Events of Jesus’ Passion and Death

Reaction to Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ has gone beyond the discussion about its merits or faults to questioning about the Christian doctrine on the purpose and meaning of the original event itself of Jesus’ cruel death. The “new evangelization” to which the Church calls us today will have to address again the question of what exactly we believe about the Cross of Jesus Christ.
Et homo factum est. He became a man. Verbum caro factum est. We believe that the Mystery called “God,” upon which the existence of all that exists depends, became a human reality, human “flesh.” Jesus Christ is first and above all the revelation of God as a human reality in this world. Every single word, every single gesture or way through which this man Jesus expressed His humanity was a revelation of the Mystery of God.
How is it possible for the Infinite to be revealed through the limited, the Eternal through the time-bound, Being through dying? How could anyone ever arrive at such a conviction? The first Christians did not arrive at this conclusion through religious or philosophical speculation about the relation between divinity and humanity.
The first Christians came to this conclusion through an event, something that happened that changed forever their awareness of what it means to be a human being. So it was then; so it is today.
Christians today see Jesus as the human revelation of the Divine because they have come to share the same experience of those disciples who first encountered Him. To recognize Jesus as the Incarnation of the Mystery called God is to be able to say, “Now I know what happened to Peter, James, John, the Samaritan woman, the man born blind, Zaccheus,” and so forth. Although the event of the Incarnation is something absolutely new, unforeseen, unprecedented, and unique, it does not occur in a historical vacuum. Indeed, history, together with matter and place, is part of what it means to be human, part of what “flesh” means. The original disciples chosen by Jesus were Jews, as He Himself was. Scripture insists: “Salvation comes from the Jews.” Therefore, the experience at the root of the Christian faith, the experience of the Presence of the Mystery in the humanity of Jesus, was understood as the fulfillment of Israel’s religious experience. This context is as much part of the Mystery of the Incarnation as anything else.
Within this particular religious experience, the self, the “I,” personal identity, was inseparable from belonging to a people. It is not surprising, therefore, that the first Christians experienced their encounter with Jesus in terms of the fulfillment of Israel’s mission to be the bearers in the world of God’s Revelation . The significance and purpose of the life and mission of Jesus was understood in terms of Israel’s hopes, including the events of His passion and death as well as His resurrection.
Therefore, Christians began to see themselves as a “new” people who were now the witnesses to the world of the full truth about the Mystery called God. Outside this belonging, going all the way back to Abraham, the life and death of Jesus remained incomprehensible. Jesus becomes an abstraction when separated from this history.
By the time the Gospels were in the form we find them today, this development had already occurred. In fact, it was this certainty about being, concerning the reality of a “new people of God,” that allowed the Church to decide which of the accounts of Jesus’ life circulating at the time corresponded to the encounter with the Lord who had risen from the dead and sent the Holy Spirit precisely to secure the continuity of the faith of His followers throughout history.
Therefore, to understand what the Gospel accounts tell us about the Mystery of God, to understand what the Cross of Christ reveals about this Mystery, the Scripture texts cannot be separated from the history of the experience that created the Church. The Gospel accounts invite us to live the life of the concrete historical people within which these events become contemporary. It is only within this experience of belonging to a people that we can discover the meaning of the events of Jesus’ passion and death.