To be a Christian is to be convinced that Jesus is the Christ. André Gounelle reflects here on the meaning of the term, Christ. He proposes a possible interpetation, without presuming that it is the only true one or that it is completely satisfying.
By André Gounelle
Translation Louise Thunin
Who is Jesus ? This question has received a multitude of answers. Some see in him a sage or a philosopher whose teachings have left an imprint on the thoughts and behavior of many human beings. Others consider him to be a prophet, someone who speaks in God’s name and transmits His messages. There have been many prophets, and Jesus is one of the greatest. This is what Islam says. He has sometimes been reresented as a revolutionary, a utopian or a romantic. In the Churches, he is often seen as God or a God-man. This declaration raises enormous difficulties and more questions than answers (see H. Persoz’s article in Evangile et liberté, issue 377, March 2018 and mine in issue 317, March 2013).
According to the New Testament, Jesus is the Christ, as Peter declares in an important episode of the gospels. Christ is not a proper name, as sometimes thought, but a title. What does it mean ? First off, we must ask the Old Testament. Christ is, indeed, the Greek rendering of a Hebrew word (transcribed in French as Messiah), which means the anointed one. People anointed by pouring oil on the head of the one who had been chosen to accomplish an important mission or to bear great responsibilities.
In fact, Old Testament texts only partially enlighten us. If they show that Christ refers to a function, they do not specify what kind. On one hand, they describe the Christ as a new Moses (someone who announces or reminds us of God’s law), on the other as a new David (a political leader), and sometimes as an apocalyptic character who will appear at the end of time, etc. In the Hebrew Bible we find, according to the American specialist, Gregory Riley, « several Christs » (serveral images of Christ), which are difficult to reconcile. It’s the same in the New Testament. By applying the title Christ to Jesus, Christians have modified and redefined the meaning. They haven’t all done it in the same way. In the New Testament, as well as in the history of Christianity, we encounter a wide range of christologies (in other words, conceptions of the Christ).
Moreover, it is not so much a question of inquiring into the meaning of Christ for Jews of the first century (disciples or not of Jesus) as it is of saying what it means to us, Christians of the twenty-first century. In continuity with the Bible, along the lines of the New Testament, but without necessarily repeating its terms and expressions, we must express in our own way what Jesus brings to us : how do we experience his presence and action in our lives ? There too we notice great diversity. To the question of what meaning we ascribe to Christ, there is no single answer. Even if the one we suggest is dear to us and we feel it is right, we have to admit that the term can be understood differently.
These different conceptions can moreover complete one another and mutually correct one another. All the while respecting them, we have the right to criticize them, to point out their merits and their lacks, without assuming that our own is perfect or the only correct one. In my book, Speaking of Christ (Van Dieren, 2003, I reported, specified and argued my own response (there is nothing very original about it) ; I’ll sum it up in two points :
First, the word « Christ » refers, I feel, before all else, to an event (the New Testament speaks of kairos) : that of a meeting with God. We can use another word for God, if we wish, to designate Reality or Ultimate Truth, Whose name surpasses all names, and which our language can evoke but never capture.
When we meet God, or, rather, when He manifests to us through a human being, a thing, a gesture, then the event called Christ takes place. God does not manifest simply in order not to be forgotten or to remind us He’s there. He manifests so that things and people change. He is a dynamic (as Process theology emhasizes), whose goal is to transform us and to engage the world in the ways of peace and justice. Christ is an act of God, who enters into a relationship with human beings and creates newness within them and around them.
Peter decares that Jesus is the Christ because he sees in him the most important act and the most meaningful intervention of God in human history. He expresses thus his conviction and personal experience. There can be authentic manifestations of God outside of Jesus, for example, in the Old Testament and in other religious, spiritual or philosophical traditions. Without denying or rejecting the possibility of these manifestations, to recognize the Christ in Jesus, for each Christian as for Peter, is to affirm one’s conviction that God is found and acts in a decisive manner in the Gospel.
Second, if the word Christ refers to an event, it also applies to a person, a human being made of flesh and blood who lived in the first century in Palestine and whose name was Jesus. To declare he is the Christ means first of all that in him, God comes closer to us and acts in us, then, also that he is the incarnation of humanity that God wants to see unfold. Christ designates at the same time an act of God and the desired result of this act, that is, a human being who is really in the image and likeness of God. To my mind, this expression of Genesis 1 doesn’t describe man as he is but as what he is called to : to live in harmony with his neighbors, with himself, with nature ; to love and to help his neighbors ; to develop an inner truth and justice in relationships.
Jesus is the Christ because he is a truly human man, whereas we are still more or less inhumane. The gospel of John, in the passion narrative, tells how Pilate, pointing out Jesus to the crowd, said « Here is the man ! » Many Christian commentators explain that, without realizing it, Pilate was expressing a profund truth : Jesus is the authentic man, with no inhumanity in him. He is the example and the image of what we should be and of what God wants to do with us.
An authentic man is not, for me, an icon or a statue frozen in immobile perfection, or a metaphysical idea engraved in an immutable heaven. He is not someone who would have nothing to do, because he’d have reached his goal. In the gospels, Jesus moves about constantly, changes, travels, learns and discovers, struggles with himself, modifies his attitudes. He is, as the gospel of John says, « the way. » He doesn’t bring a law or a static set of rules. He brings and transmits a dynamic ambition, that of going farther. An authentic man is not free of flaws and weaknesses, but throughout his lacks and his successes, he remains a traveler : he gropes his way, explores and progresses on the roads of life, letting himself be inspired by the spirit of God acting within him.
An event : that of an encounter with God, and a human being aligned with God’s will, this is what Jesus represents for me and what makes of him, as I see it, the Christ. He is the Christ insofar as he directs, enlivens and humanizes our existences, our own and many others.’