Closing out Part 2 of The Lord, we come to a reflection on this seemingly dual Christ that we get from the Gospels. On the one hand we have the Jesus of the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). This Jesus is placed firmly in history as an ancient Jew, even if the actual order of some of the events in each of the Synoptics may differ. It’s easy to read the Synoptics and imagine a man living at that time, named Jesus, who behaved the way Jesus did and said the things Jesus did, miracles notwithstanding. But John’s Gospel portrays a different Jesus—the Son of God. John opens his Gospel with a new Creation account, firmly establishing his Jesus as first and foremost the eternal God who “without him not one thing came into being.” While the Synoptics flow more from the perspective of Jesus the man, John takes every event in Jesus’s life from the top down—that is, first and foremost from the perspective that this is God incarnate.
The question that immediately pops up, then, is “Which is really Jesus?” Is it the Jesus of the Synoptics, or the Jesus of John?
The answer, of course, is “both of them.” But to make sense of that answer, we have to return to an idea we hit upon when we started this book. We discussed Jesus being the turning point of history and everything that occurred before him, including all the events of the Old Testament, acting as a sort of preparation for his arrival. That’s why we get Matthew and Luke taking the time to write down the ancestry of Jesus for us, to illustrate the connectedness of Jesus into the entirety of all human history, not simply the period into which he was born.
This idea of preparation is also echoed in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus continually takes what the people know, the Law, and elevates the demands to a higher level. A repeated patter of “You have heard it said . . . but I say to you . . .” All this preparation was done so that people would be ready to receive more. That is, more of the truth. This is what we’re seeing in the Gospels themselves. The Synoptics were written early on in the history of the Church. John was written later. In the Synoptics, we read what we would expect from people recounting what they remember about this incredible God-man. In John, we see a more mature Christian recounting of this same story—a recounting which has had decades of living and growing in faith, under the guidance and help of the Holy Spirit given to it by Christ. John’s Jesus is the same Jesus, but John’s account has the benefit of years of prayer and living the Christian life at its back to bring that image of Jesus into a more complete picture.
We could point to several examples in the Early Church for this maturing in faith bringing us to a fuller understanding of what is revealed. The hypostatic union or the establishment of the Nicene Creed we recite every mass would be two such examples. But we see an example of this in the Gospels themselves, as Guardini points out in the story of Nicodemus in John’s Gospel.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus as one who is, perhaps, merely curious (John 3:1-21). He’s open to what Jesus has to say, but he’s too afraid and cautious about him to approach openly. So he comes in the night. This is where Jesus tells Nicodemus (and, by extension, us) that one must be born of “water and spirit.” One must literally be born again. Nicodemus doesn’t understand, and takes it literally, thinking that Jesus is suggesting a man must revert to infancy and return to his mother’s womb. Jesus merely restates the point: one must be reborn if he is to see the Kingdom of God. He then emphasizes the importance his testimony, and his mission. Jesus ought to be believed because he has seen the things he speaks of, which man has never seen. Nicodemus goes silent, not understanding but still intrigued. He will reflect on what Jesus has said. He is at least shaken by the thought that Jesus may be who he says he is.
We see Nicodemus return in John 7:45-52, where he comes to Jesus’s defense against the chief priests: don’t judge him until you have heard what he has to say. It seems that having spent some time reflecting on what Jesus had to teach him, Nicodemus is beginning to realize the innocence of the man, and perhaps to accept the truth of his claim to divinity. We finally see him bringing “a hundred pounds” of myrrh and aloes to bury Jesus (John 19:38-42). The quantity here is significant, as it indicates to us that this is a royal burial. The preparation that was done, the initial teaching of Nicodemus by Jesus himself, and all the time Nicodemus spent maturing and reflecting and praying upon what he had been told, has now led Nicodemus to accept the truth: Jesus is King, and as such deserves a royal burial.
If I were a conspiracy-minded person, I would say John included the story of Nicodemus precisely as an illustration of why his Gospel is so different and so “top-down” compared to the Synoptics. We don’t see Nicodemus anywhere but in John’s Gospel, after all. But the tale of Nicodemus shows us how spending time reflecting on what has been revealed, and with a little divine help (which Nicodemus received directly from Christ himself!), we begin to understand more of that revelation, and thus to accept more of the truth revealed in it. In the same way, the Jesus of John is not someone different, to be held up against the Synoptic Jesus. The Jesus of John is the Synoptic Jesus, recounted after many years of praying, communing, and living with the Church—after many years of the Holy Spirit’s assistance in the development of the evangelist’s faith.
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.