As we move on to chapters seven and eight of The Lord, we start to get into the public ministry of Jesus. We see him teaching in the synagogue, we see him healing the sick, and we see his following begin to grow. And if there’s one thing that could encapsulate and summarize the public life of Jesus, it would be the proclamation “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” Jesus says so himself, after John was arrested: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). But what is the Kingdom of God? Guardini puts it thus:
“God’s kingdom, therefore, is no fixed, existing order, but a living, nearing thing. Long remote, it now advances, little by little, and has come so close as to demand acceptance. Kingdom of God means a state in which God is king and consequently rules.”
-Romano Guardini ("The Lord")
The question that of course arises is what is this “state” and what does acceptance of it look like? We know that the acceptance of it involves some manner of repentance and belief, as Jesus says, but what does that mean in more practical terms?
Guardini edges us toward an answer. He spends the next few pages discussing the things that rule us in our lives. Our relationships with other people rule us, our desires for ourselves or even our desires for other people rule us, our fears, our obligations to work or to governments, those are the things that rule us in the here and now. There is no room for God in this picture. God rules in our lives only when we find the time to allow Him to rule. “He reigns only inasmuch as consciousness of his presence is able to force itself upon me, to coexist with the people in my life.”
For God to rule in our lives, God would be the first thing we think about, always. We would be conscious of him like we are a dear and intimate friend, whose face we always long to see and with whom we always want to speak. All the things and relationships in our lives would be shaped and transformed by this first and foremost reality: God is King, and without Him, nothing matters (indeed, nothing could be at all). The repentance and belief Jesus calls for is precisely the acceptance of this reality, for in its acceptance we would necessarily stop allowing other things on our lives to be the first ruler.
“Then God would stand with all the power of his being in my soul . . . My heart and will would experience him as the Holy Being who appraises every value, the Sense behind all senses; as the One who rewards not only ultimately, but also who alone, here and now, lends the most insignificant earthly act its intrinsic justification and meaning.”
-Romano Guardini ("The Lord")
This is what the season of Lent is aimed toward in a special way, and more broadly what the entirety of the Christian life ought to be ordered toward. We fast and we abstain in this season in a special way in order to force ourselves to allow more room for God in our lives. The hope being that by the end of the Lenten season, we will have accepted this state, this Kingdom of God, and that God will reign in our lives forever.
The fifth chapter of The Lord, “Baptism & Temptation” deals with Jesus’s temptation and fasting in the desert. It’s a fitting thing to focus on, seeing as we are currently in Lent and that is, after all, what Lent is based around. However there’s something in the sixth chapter, “Interim,” that draws my attention more intensely.
Guardini spends the sixth chapter talking about the time after Jesus left the desert, and began his public ministry. He began traveling around, meeting people, teaching, and rapidly gathering followers. It’s here where we see the disciples join him. Jesus encounters each of them, and each of them makes the decision to follow him. But it’s not like it was mere chance encounters. People had heard talk of this Nazarene Rabbi and were curious. They were drawn to him, more than they even realized. They were drawn to the mystery of the man, yes, but they were also drawn to the divine mystery of the Son as well, even if they didn’t realize it. There was something about this man Jesus that drew people to him.
And once they actually encountered Jesus, everything changed. It was no longer a force of attraction that was pulling them toward him. That encounter with the God man fundamentally changed their lives. This is something we’ll see with Levi, the tax collector, in tomorrow’s Gospel reading, Luke 5:27-32 (and something I wrote about in my first Lenten Reflection Series). Levi has this brief encounter with Jesus where all Jesus says is “Follow me.” We hear nothing more from that interaction. But that is apparently enough for Levi to drop everything, and follow Jesus. The same happens of Simon, and Andrew, and James, and John. No matter what their lives were, no matter what worries or concerns or ambitions they had, no matter what initial hesitations they may have had about Jesus, none of that mattered as soon as the offer was made. “Follow me.” And that’s what they all did. Everything changed for them because of those two simple words.
It’s truly incredible to think about. But it does bring to mind those that had an encounter with Jesus, and yet did not change. Herod comes to mind, or the High Priest. No offer of “Follow me” was explicitly made to these men, or at least it wasn’t recorded in the Gospels. Perhaps Jesus simply knew these men would reject him, and therefore didn’t bother. But that doesn’t seem an adequate explanation. The salvation he offers is for all (John 3:16). The difference between these men and the disciples must lie in the heart. The offer was made to the disciples because they were open to it, they approached Jesus with the curiosity that seeks to delve deeper into the mystery.
But Herod and the High Priest were not curious at all. They hated Jesus from the outset. They opposed him at every turn. He was merely a troublemaker—a vagrant radical who posed a threat to the order and the power they had worked so hard to keep, and who was taking their people with him. They had no interest in the mystery. There was no mystery, for them. He was something to be stamped out or ignored. Their hearts were closed. And so no offer was made.
Are our hearts open to the offer? Are we willing to encounter the mystery, to allow ourselves to delve deeper into what we do not understand?
There’s an interesting thread of “doubt” that weaves its way through these third and fourth chapters of The Lord. Guardini focuses the third chapter on the Incarnation, the Son become man. It truly is a remarkable and wholly unfathomable claim that the supreme and eternal God could possibly be found in something so lowly and base as a man. “If doubt can establish a foothold anywhere in our faith, it is here” he says. And of course! It’s absurd, no matter what Revelation tells me! But Guardini suggests we do not suppress this doubt. We do not ignore it. But instead we should “give it room”, so that we might continue to reflect and meditate on the question more carefully and more patiently.
Trying to comprehend how this can be, or even further why it would be, stretches the limits of our intellectual capacity as human beings. “Before such an unheard of thought the intellect bogs down.” We are trying to understand the actions, decisions, and nature of something so profoundly and unimaginably “other” and beyond ourselves, that our reason simply hits a brick wall. How can I make rhyme or reason of something which is so beyond my capability to reason?
Guardini suggests a method for overcoming this brick wall of our own doubt—doubts like what John faced in his final days. He mentions a friend who, in reply to Guardini’s own befuddlement, simply said “But love does such things!”
“Again and again these words have come to the rescue when the mind has stopped short at some intellectual impasse. Not that they explain anything to the intelligence; they arouse the heart, enabling it to feel its way into the secrecy of God. The mystery is not understood, but it does move nearer . . .
None of the great things in human life springs from the intellect; every one of them issues from the heart and its love. If even human love has its own reasoning, comprehensible only to the heart that is open to it, how much truer must this be of God’s love!”
-Romano Guardini ("The Lord")
This message of doubt and love is echoed in the fourth chapter, where Guardini talks about John the Baptist sending a message from the cell in which Herod imprisoned him, asking Jesus “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Matt. 11:3) Even John, the greatest of the prophets, finds himself mired in doubt. We can imagine him agonizing in his cell, having dedicated all of his short life to this vocation, to prepare the way for the one who is to come. But now, in the custody of Herod and knowing the end is near, his certainty wavers. He desperately reaches out for confirmation that his life wasn’t in vain. But note that John did not deny his doubt. He did not suppress it. He gave it room, he let himself reflect on it, agonizing as it must have been. His mind churned over the thought for hours upon hours, until finally he was at a wall. His mind could not make sense of it. He needed help, and the only help that could possibly be enough would be from the one whom he loved—from he who is truly the Messiah.
These doubts we have are not to be shirked, not to be driven away or cast aside. They are an opportunity for us to turn to God in love and ask for His help, as John did. Love grows and develops, and the more we turn to God in love, the more our love for Him will grow. And the more our love for God grows the more we will find we are able to understand. Perhaps not always with the intellect, but with the heart that is now open to the truths that are too big to comprehend. Love does such things!
The first two chapters of The Lord start, fittingly, at the very beginning: the origins and ancestry of Jesus of Nazareth. Guardini goes through the genealogies in Luke and Matthew in chapter one, briefly describing the academic opinions at the time around why there are two different genealogies, but spending most of the time meditating on what we can garner from those genealogies.
The lines include the most prominent Old Testament figures: Abraham, David, Noah, Jacob, Enoch, even Ruth! The inclusion of these long lists of names are not merely there to provide a family tree, or even merely to prove the Messiah was descended from the proper lines according to the prophecies. The names we see draw our minds to those historical dramas. We think of these people and what we already know about them. Who they were, what they did, how they lived their lives like any man or woman and yet were still so close to God. We think of history. And it’s into that history that the Son of God enters. Rather than remain outside time, God inserts Himself into it. He becomes a part of it.
John states it explicitly: “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” John focuses his opening chapter on this grand metaphysical reality of the divine entering into the world. Not in some spiritual way, as an angel might appear before someone. But in a real and true way, God became a man—God became a part of the world. Guardini says it best himself:
“Only in the flesh, not in the bare spirit, can destiny and history come into being . . . God descended to us in the person of the Savior, Redeemer, in order to have a destiny, to become history. Through the Incarnation, the founder of the new history stepped into our midst. With his coming, all that had been before fell into its historical place . . .”
-Romano Guardini (The Lord)
That is to say, the genealogy we see, we see it as a preparation. All that came before was building to this one moment, and now all of history is simultaneously upended and fulfilled by this event: the Son become man. God became history so that we could have a destiny, as His children joined to the Body and brought home to the Father from whom we came.
And let us not forget how the Son precisely did this. He did not simply show up one day, in full human regalia and say “Surprise!” No, he entered this world like every man before him. He had his own mother. Guardini spends the second chapter of The Lord reflecting on Mary, and the intense struggle she went through with this child of her own flesh and blood, whom she suckled and protected when he was most helpless, and yet who remains so wholly incomprehensible and “other.” All through Luke’s Gospel, we hear how she didn’t understand, and yet she still believed. The power of her faith was evident from her response to the angel, “let it be with me according to your word.” The angel calls her “full of grace,” and Elizabeth exclaims “blessed is she who believed!” Mary is confronted with this impossible scenario of all the worry and responsibility and love that comes with being a mother to a child, while also never being able to fully comprehend who this man is. How can any mortal comprehend the living God?! The story of Mary is the story of the power of faith and love. Her life is caught up in such confusion, and yet she lives her entire life deeply rooted by her faith.
If the genealogies lead us to think of the preparation of history for the coming Incarnation, the person of Mary must lead us to think of how one ought to strive to be in this new history. Always filled with love for God, always rooted in faith, even when we can’t possibly understand the truth God has brought us in contact with.
Every day of Lent, I am writing a reflection piece on two chapters of "The Lord" by Romano Guardini. If you'd like to read or follow along, you can find the full calendar of where we're at below, or Click Here for the main landing page.