While anxiously awaiting a final grade for the Christology course I just completed, I must say that in this case a little knowledge is a wonderful thing.
Those of you who are regular readers of this column know how much these classes cost me, not only monetarily but also in terms of time and effort. Since last year I’ve taken five master’s-degree level classes, and with each one I’ve wondered if the struggle is worth what little knowledge I seem to have acquired. The few moments of tangible results seem a paltry reward for all the stress.
But then this weekend I took up – of my own volition, not because it was assigned reading – Pope Benedict XIV’s Jesus of Nazareth, and I understood not only the words on the page but also what was between the lines!
For example, in Chapter One of the book, Benedict discusses John the Baptist. Now, from the class I just took I know things about John and his baptizing in the Jordan that Benedict doesn’t mention: that John’s message of the coming wrath of God must be taken seriously before we can appreciate Jesus’ message of forgiveness, and that a significant difference between Jesus and John is that Jesus actively went after sinners to bring them into the fold whereas John merely allowed the sinners to come to him. As for the river, the Jordan had significance to the Jews because it was the river that the Israelites crossed into the Promised Land, and where Elijah was taken up into heaven, and where Naaman was healed after bathing in the waters.
All of these details add depth to any biblical mention of John the Baptist and the River Jordan.
It’s possible that some of these connections have been brought up by priests in the homilies during the many Sundays I’ve been sitting in a pew over lo these many years, but if they were I don’t recall hearing them. Although I must confess that I’ve been known to daydream during a sermon, whereas the threat of receiving a bad grade is significant enough incentive to encourage me to remember what is being taught in the class. The coursework also has the luxury of being able to devote more space to a topic than could be addressed in a 10-minute homily. (And, Father, I know what you’re thinking, but no, throwing extra detail into your homily won’t help – I have a hard enough time keeping focused for 10 minutes. You talk any longer and those daydreams are all but guaranteed.)
What I find encouraging from all this is that I’m actually looking forward to reading the rest of Benedict’s book and, as soon as I can afford to buy them and have time to read them, the other two volumes in the set.
I’m not saying that I’ll understand absolutely everything the pope emeritus writes. Even in the first chapter of the first book he mentions a couple of things I didn’t know, such as that John’s baptism included the confession of sins, and that the crowds who came to the Baptist were from around Judea but not from the far-off Galilee, from whence Jesus came. These details, however, are simply completing the picture I have of the Baptist that, before the classes, was little more than a stick figure proclaiming “Prepare ye the way of the Lord,” and not even knowing that line came first from Isaiah.
So, I must admit that the hard work I’ve put into my studies is starting to pay off, but I have to say that I’m disheartened by the fact that it hasn’t made me a better Christian. While I’m stuffing my head with Benedict, Francis is pointing out that the poor, the homeless, the needy, the immigrant, the downtrodden aren’t helped at all by book learning. Instead, they need me to extend a helping hand, an encouraging word, a welcoming heart. The bricks of knowledge I’m constructing may earn me an A in the grade book, but they’re not paving the way to heaven. As the Gospel of James reminds us, “faith (or in my case, knowledge) without works is dead.” I need to keep that in mind as I decide how to allot my time and efforts.
Marie Mischel is editor of the Intermountain Catholic.