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Spirituality: Getting our Messiahs straight
by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register
(From the Dec. 20, 2001 edition of the Inland Register)
In Jewish spirituality the Messiah-to-come remains front and center. He is the one awaited as the agent of God’s kingdom. He will be the one who will usher in the final days of salvation — that great and glorious day for which millions have longed. The messiah is the anointed of the Lord — the christ — who will be instrumental in revealing the purpose of what modern scientists so impersonally label the “human endeavor.”
As messiah, the special anointed agent of God’s Way will demand, not by legislated force, but by profound moral conscientious claim, that kind of obedience which shapes and molds all expenditures of time, talent and treasure. When the messiah appears those who sincerely seek the Way of God will follow without hesitation because that one will be worth living for — someone worth dying for. It is obvious from someone’s style of living whom he or she claims as messiah!
Several historians of ancient times — and even the Acts of the Apostles — indicate that in the days of John the Baptist there were sporadic appearances out of the rugged hills of the Middle East — Palestine in particular — of charismatic men who either themselves claimed, or were acclaimed by others, as such a messiah. Perhaps they were not much different in appearance or deeds from the war lords of that area whom we watch nowadays on the evening news. Each would summon his band of dedicated followers and set about “establishing God’s kingdom” — quite often with the sword. And the people legitimately tracked each with questioning eye: Is this the one-who-is-to-come or do we wait for another? Death at the hands of the messiah’s enemies, assassination by their own troupe, or execution by the powers-that-be often answered the question for them.
Is there any wonder, then, why John the Baptist asked from his prison cell if Jesus of Nazareth were the one-who-is-to-come, or did he have to wait for another? The question was not raised in a vacuum. Jesus was one among several possible could-be messiahs. John himself had risked life and limb in pointing to Jesus as the Lamb of God, the grace-filled servant in whom the God of Israel was acting in a final and definitive way in human history. As John faced certain death for opposing the immorality of the King, the question he posed was not a matter of academics. It held serious consequences. John had gambled his life.
It is interesting to note that Jesus’ response to John’s query was not a glib, “Yep, that be me!” Jesus told John’s messengers to return with far a more important testimony: Tell John what you see and hear: the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and, especially, the poor are the recipients of God’s favor. The “proof” of Jesus’ messiah-ship was not to be found in the mere claim to special status, but in the manifest goodness of God in his actions. The messiah-to-come does the things of God, in other words; judge for yourself if the One-who-is-to-come has arrived. Decide on the basis of what has happened, not on what is merely said. But be careful with the decision to follow: it is a matter of life and death.
The implication of this brief dialogue is that John dies in hope, consoled by what he has seen: Jesus indeed is the Anointed of the Lord. Perhaps his dying words repeated those that echoed up and down Jordan’s bank: “Look, there is the Lamb of God. Follow Him.”
Scripture scholars tell us that it is quite unlikely that Jesus claimed the role of messiah for himself. He surely saw himself as an agent of God’s kingdom — but all believers properly so perceive themselves. Jesus was willing to give himself entirely over to the will of the One whose sending power lay heavily on his heart and poured forth in his every word and deed. Such total obedience even led him to a seemingly senseless death. Theologically speaking, when Jesus rises from the dead by his power of God, his status as Messiah is firmly and irreversibly established. The “lordship” budding in his ministry was confirmed as evident to those who would believe — to those who were searching for the coming messiah. The manner of living which followed was an expected matter of expressing in real, practical ways the moral demand that came with claiming Jesus as Messiah.
Even for those of us who live centuries after these events, the question is constantly posed: Is Jesus the one-who-is-to-come or do we wait for another? The need for messiah is central to the journey of faith toward ultimate happiness. It is a question (even if its asked in different words) which frames the scientists’ “human endeavor.” It cannot be avoided. If one messiah is rejected, then where is the real one? The question gets personal. If Jesus is not messiah for me (and the totality of my life is oriented accordingly) then who — or what thing — is?
The catechetical answer to this fundamental question learned from childhood is quick: Jesus is the One. Confessing this as reality, however, is not sufficient. We can all parrot what we are expected to say or rewarded for uttering. Our childhood formation and our religious culture can shape the words for us. Even the Church gives us the correct ones to use.
But as we grow and mature into our own being and assume responsibility for our lives, every cradle believer still needs to answer this question for himself or herself. The answer we give has far-reaching implications. How we answer that question is manifest not so much in the Christmas cards we send during this season as it is in the way we live every day of the year. Our answer is obvious in the way we give shape to the moral demand which results from claiming Jesus as Messiah — in how we spend our time, talent and even treasure.
How we have answered the messiah question is evident to those around us. Regardless of what we say with our lips, what we do in terms of our lifestyle — how we expend the world’s goods and especially how we treat one another — speaks volumes about whom we follow as Messiah.
We once again embrace the great feast of Christmas — the coming of God’s Anointed. Our culture has cleverly commercialized the reason for the season, smothering the radical claim of Christians that Jesus, son of Mary is Son of God, Lord and Messiah. But the challenge can call us to our spiritual senses. It is healthy thing to let our culture purify our faith. Despite its noise and glamour, the world rightly asks of us: Is Jesus the One-who-is-to-come, or do we wait for another? Where do we find true life? Who leads us to genuine happiness? Who takes us beyond the grave to eternal life? Who is worth living for? Worth dying for?
Merely exchanging “Merry Christmas” with one another falls short of the task. The witness of our style of living answers the world’s question most powerfully. What other thing or what other person has more moral claim on our hearts and lives than the One who came from God? Christmas is a good time to get our messiahs straight.
(Father Savelesky is pastor of Assumption Parish, Spokane. His latest book, Catholics Believe, has been released by Harcourt Religion Publishers.)
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