Review: Rekindling the Christic Imagination, Part II

by Michael Sean Winters

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Yesterday, I began looking at Fr. Robert Imbelli’s new book Rekindling the Christic Imagination: Theological Meditations for the New Evangelization. I got no further than the introduction which provocatively brings Charles Taylor into dialogue with Pope Emeritus Benedict, so full is that introduction with insights that seem particularly keen as we approach Holy Week.

That introduction gives way to four chapters, each of which looks at part of the Christian faith and each of which begins with a brief commentary on a particular work of art. I do not want to examine all four chapters, or else you might not feel compelled to buy the book – and you should buy this book. You can order it by clicking here. Instead, I propose to look at the first chapter, “The Originality and Uniqueness of Jesus the Christ,” which is especially fruitful for reflection at the Triduum.

The chapter on Jesus the Christ opens with a reflection on the sculpture of Christ bestowing the Holy Spirit on the apostles that graces the portal at the Basilica of St. Mary Magdalene in Vezelay, France. Imbelli notes that the great cellist Rostropovich had declined to record Bach’s Suites for Cello “until he had attained a requisite artistic and even spiritual maturity,” and that he insisted on recording them at a place which would heighten his spiritual sensitivities. He chose this basilica. “To enter the Basilica,” Imbelli writes,” having passed under the great image of the risen Christ, radiating the Holy Spirit, is to enter the new world of grace that calls to transformation and new life.”

The “newness” of Christ is a theme throughout the book but nowhere more so than here, in the first chapter. Imbelli begins by reflecting on the great hymns to Christ found in the Scriptures, found in the “prologue” to the Gospel of John, in the second chapter of St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians, and in the first chapter of St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians. These Christological hymns “represent what some all the ‘first theology’ – the lived celebration and symbol-laden interpretations of the unique figure of Jesus – that precedes and grounds the more conceptually elaborated ‘second theology’ of the early fathers and councils of the church. Even more remarkable is that the Christological claims, given exuberant voice in these hymns, concern a figure who, within living memory, had undergone shameful and scandalous crucifixion as a common criminal.” A couple of pages later, Imbelli reminds us, “We have grown so accustomed to singing and speaking of being redeemed by Christ’s death that the strangeness of the affirmation has become muted. Yet the scandalous claim remains: the execution of a Jew, in a remote province of the Roman Empire, has somehow effected the salvation of all.” I would add that this scandalous claim must be the heart of the New Evangelization, and must be presented as Imbelli does, in all its bizarre newness.

It is quite a claim and it is the basic claim of our faith. If we obscure that with talk about how living a Christian life improves one’s chance at happiness, or enlivens the prospects of civil society by nurturing virtue in the citizenry, or brings solace in the face of suffering, or any other effect of the claim, then we obscure the key question: Do we believe this claim? “We can further probe this ‘newness’ by focusing not merely upon what Jesus did, but upon who Jesus is – as Irenaeus suggests, ‘bringing himself.’” This is a point I always make with our RCIA candidates as they prepare to be received into the Church: Everything they have learned in RCIA, all that the Church teaches, all is founded on this claim that the Crucified Lives. Why would we question the verdict of those who knew Jesus well, those who decided he had challenged the Law and needed to be put to death for so challenging it? We question that verdict of death only because we believe that God rendered a different verdict on Jesus, raising Him from the dead. If we don’t believe that, what are we doing? I always end this part of my presentation with the story of Flannery O’Connor attending a dinner party of highly educated, erudite Catholics who discussed the symbolic significance of the Eucharist in great detail until, finally, O’Connor piped up, “Well, if it is just a symbol, then to Hell with it.”

Imbelli reflects on the powerful scene in Scripture at the Garden of Gethsemane, the alignment of the human and divine wills that occurs as Jesus speaks with intimacy and obedience to His Father. Imbelli goes on: “Not only is there a ‘moral’ coincidence of wills between Jesus and his heavenly Father, the ‘newness’ the Tradition proclaims is deeper yet. One might rightly call it ‘ontological.’ The very being of Jesus manifests the true humanity that God desires. Jesus is the faithful covenant partner who images perfectly God’s love and fidelity. There is revealed in Jesus that new relational self who is totally for God and totally at the service of his brothers and sisters. And his service is himself: ‘the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world’ (John 6:51).”

If the scandal of the Cross is tough enough, there is yet another scandal at the heart of Christian belief, one that seems to get more challenging as our scientific inquiries lead us to learn more and more about the vastness of the universe. “How are we to join this universalist, even cosmic, confession of the priority of Jesus Christ with the concrete particularity of his existence at a determinate place and time, heir to a specific religious tradition?” Imbelli asks. Building on von Balthasar’s idea of the “concrete universal,” Imbelli points to Philippians 2:6-8, and writes, “This self-emptying pattern characterizes the historical life and ministry of Jesus, culminating in his sacrifice upon the cross under Pontius Pilate (as the Creed insistently recalls). This paschal pattern characterizes God’s grace universally, wherever it is found. Whether within or outside the empirical Christian community, God’s grace always bears a paschal shape.” Imbelli’s logic will satisfy a Christian, to be sure, but others may not agree, just as the risen Christ appeared to those who believed.

Imbelli writes that Jesus exemplifies a “Eucharistic imagination.” He writes:

Think of the supreme artists from whose imaginations have sprung the seminal works that have nourished and enhanced our spirits through the ages: the plays of Sophocles and Shakespeare, the paintings of Rafael and Caravaggio, the sculpture of Michelangelo and Bernini, the novels of Dostoyevsky and Dickens, the music of Bach and Mozart. These and their peers have given us radiant, even life-transforming glimpses of the creative power of God. Jesus gathers up and transcends them all. For he has imagined – and realized in himself – a world redeemed. All the others who have created lasting works of beauty and goodness are distinguishable from their works. But Jesus is his work.

Jesus wants man to be joined in communion with God and, therefore, with one another and Jesus is “impelled by his passion for communion…Supper and cross mutually illuminate one another. They represent the consummation of the new order Jesus was intent on instituting, the new eucharistic world he was bringing into being.”

Imbelli discuss the power of the fear of death. Here he demonstrates what I would consider a keen Christian psychology. After noting that fear of death need not be “pathological,” indeed it is part of our human nature, Imbelli writes, “The ‘death’ in question need not be construed, in the first instance, as the termination of physical life. Rather, it embraces all those situations which mirror ‘death’: any diminution of our sense of self. Suffering, hatred, enmity, rejection, betrayal, all carry the ‘scent’ of death to our threatened selves, as so many of the psalms lament. And closely allied with our recoil before the onslaught of these deadly diminishments is our tendency to self-deception: the lies we tell ourselves as well as to others.” Those are the words of someone who has heard many, many confessions.

The following chapters are similarly chockfull of thoughtful, penetrating insights, as Imbelli considers the Trinity, the Eucharist and the Church. Each chapter, like the first, is deeply rooted in Imbelli’s reading of Scripture, his familiarity with a range of artistic and literary sources, but, most of all, with a faith that is truly seeking understanding, and understands that our understanding of faith can be thorough but never exhaustive. This is a wonderful book which invites the reader to a deeper and closer relationship with the Lord and, just so, a deeper commitment to the Lord’s bride, the Church. It is the perfect book to help us enter into the Triduum where these mysteries of our faith find their source and their claim to truth. We commemorate in these holy days the passion, death and resurrection of the Lord, and if we believe that event to be as true and real as the things we can see and touch and hear, we need some guidance on how to make sense of it all. Imbelli, here as in his many writings, provides us a map for that interior seeking which is the answer of every Christian to the question posed on that first Easter morning: “Why do you seek the living amongst the dead?”





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