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1) The four Gospels are our principal resource for understanding Jesus; they are the foundation documents of our Christian community. Few of us, however, were first introduced to Jesus through reading the Gospels. Most of us were introduced to Jesus through people who passed on to us the living tradition they had received: in that sense the first Gospel we encountered was probably people. The theologian Walter Kasper insists that the starting-point of anyone’s faith journey is “faith as it is actually believed, lived, proclaimed and practised in the Christian churches. Faith in Jesus can arise only from encounter with other Christians” (Jesus the Christ, p.28). People pass on the faith, they retell the Jesus story “so that you may believe Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and believing this, you may have life in his name” (Jn 20:31). As the fourth evangelist reflects, the purpose of passing on the tradition is to give life. Who first introduced us to Jesus? What were our first images of Jesus? Where did those images originate?

Head of Christ: Leuven, twelfth century



2) Looking at our own first images of Jesus First images of Jesus ? ? ? ? Yeshua

Source? parents grandparents parish church school evangelists

3) Looking at the above panel, you can fill in images of Jesus that were passed on to you from family or institutions. It takes most people time before they meet the Jesus of the evangelists, the one known as Yeshua to his contemporaries. Most people first inherit the images of Jesus that are popular in their family, local tradition, culture, etc. The writers of the Gospels were part of this people-centred process, and they too share their first images of Jesus. If none of the evangelists knew Jesus personally, all of them were introduced to Jesus through an earlier generation of preachers and teachers. Each of them emerged from a different community of faith; each of them passed on, in his own creative way, the living tradition he had received. The Church gave birth to the Gospels, not vice versa. 4) Looking at the evangelists’ first images of Jesus At the beginning of each written Gospel, the evangelist connects the new Jesus story to a larger story. Each places the Jesus story into a larger frame: the prophetic story (Mark); the Jewish story (Matthew); the human story (Luke); the divine story (John). Also, the four evangelists have different first images of Jesus: this is understandable because they begin the story of Jesus in different places. Mark begins with an adult Jesus; Matthew and Luke begin with the conception and birth of Jesus; John begins before the world was created. These different beginnings mean different first images.

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First images


Adult layman; Secret Messiah; Suffering Son of Man


New Moses;Son of David; Son of God


Son of David; Son of God


Logos;Creator of all; Stranger from heaven


Mark (c. AD 70): the prophetic story Context: back to eighth century Mark opens his Gospel by building a bridge back to the Jewish scriptures through the prophecy of Isaiah, from the eighth century BC. That prophecy is secured in the present in the person and ministry of John the Baptist. Jesus first appears on Mark’s stage as an adult who leaves home in Nazareth and journeys south to join the multitudes being baptised by the wilderness prophet. The breathless pace of Mark’s Gospel begins in the midst of ongoing drama – as ancient prophecy is fulfilled, as John heralds an unknown follower, and as Jesus appears from obscurity to begin his prophetic mission.

I shall be telling you this with a sigh Somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less travelled by, And that has made all the difference.

Piero della Francesca: Baptism of Christ (detail)

Mark, probably the first person to commit the Gospel to writing, tells us nothing of Jesus’ previous family life, never even mentioning Joseph. Mark begins Jesus’ story at a defining moment in his life, when Jesus leaves home and goes south to the wilderness of Judea. Jesus is an adult layman who leaves Nazareth because he is attracted by the revivalist preaching of John. For Mark, that initial connection with John the Baptist will define the development of the Jesus story; that contact will make a key difference. As Robert Frost wrote in his poem “The Road not Taken”:









It is interesting to note the shift in the use of language from the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ ministry to the story of his passion and death. The language of the ministry ACTIVE VERBS: Jesus makes things happen During the public ministry, Jesus is presented as the protagonist whose leadership is demonstrated through the unique authority of his deeds and words, a commanding presence who gives definition to his mission by his vigorous actions and teaching. His identity, like that of every human being, is gradually revealed through his actions and words. So, for example, we learn about Jesus through his active verbs:


• • • • • • • • • •


Jesus teaches with authority he gathers chosen disciples to be with him he preaches the kingdom of God he heals the sick he proves himself lord of the Sabbath he exercises power over the demons he eats with tax collectors and sinners he feeds multitudes of people he prays to God as “Abba” he confronts and criticises the religious authorities

The language of the passion PASSIVE VERBS: things happen to Jesus The passion narrative tells a different story. One of the most frustrating things about being a victim of violence, suffering at the hands of hostile people, is that things happens to you over which you have no control. You are no longer in charge; other people make decisions and do things to you; you are left to suffer the consequences of their actions. It is interesting to watch the language of the passion story describing what happens to Jesus. It moves to the passive voice as you watch others take charge of Jesus’ life. Thus:

Christ on the Cold Stone: carved limestone, Netherlands The sculpture left, dated about 1500, portrays an exposed and vulnerable Jesus, facing the violent plans others are making around him. He is naked, wearing only a crown of thorns. Those who look at the sculpture are invited to meditate on the psychological and physical anguish of Jesus, sitting on a cold stone, momentarily withdrawn from all the violent action around him. The pose is not unlike the traditional representation of Melancholy. This particular invention of medieval piety was meant to convey the inconsolable sorrow and loneliness of Jesus: “All you who pass by the way, see if there be any sorrow like to my sorrow” (Lam. 1:12).

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• Jesus is ignored by his disciples in Gethsemane • he is handed over by Judas • he is arrested and led away • he is abandoned by his disciples • he is handed over to the high priest • he is interrogated and accused falsely • he is condemned as deserving death • he is spat on and struck • he is renounced by Peter • he is led away and handed over to Pilate • he is tried • he is rejected in favour of Barabbas • he is flogged • he is mocked as a king • he is handed over to be crucified • he is led away by the soldiers • he is helped by a stranger • he is crucified • he is derided by passers-by • he is mocked by the chief priests • he is taunted by the co-crucified Power not exercised In the language of the Gospel, you expect Jesus as the shepherd to lead and others to follow his leadership. In the passion, however, there is a dramatic shift: the time comes when the shepherd is struck down, and the sheep are scattered (see Mk 14:27). The opposite of passion is apatheia, a Greek word that means the inability to suffer, the condition where avoiding suffering becomes such a dominant goal that one avoids human relationships and contacts altogether. In the passion Jesus endures suffering and demonstrates a unique leadership of vulnerability. As the poet Seamus Heaney observed in this excerpt from his poem “Weighing In”:

And this is all the good tidings amount to: This principle of bearing, bearing up And bearing out, just having to

Kim Yong Gil: The Crucifixion (detail)

Balance the intolerable in others Against our own, having to abide Whatever we settled for and settled into Against our better judgement. Passive Suffering makes the world go round . . . Prophesy who struck thee! When soldiers mocked Blindfolded Jesus and he didn’t strike back They were neither shamed nor edified, although Something was made manifest – the power Of power not exercised, of hope inferred By the powerless forever. Seamus Heaney, The Spirit Level (London: Faber & Faber, 1996) p.17





Jesus & the Gospels  

4)Lookingattheevangelists’first imagesofJesus At the beginning of each written Gospel, the evangelist connects the new Jesus story to a larg...

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