Providence Journal , RI
March 27 2004
Jesus is the message of God
by Stephen Lynch:
Dan Brown’s novel, The Da Vinci Code, on The New York Times’
hardcover fiction bestseller list for months, points up our culture’s
continuing fascination with Jesus Christ. Brown’s novel challenges
Christianity’s roots in terms of Christ’s divinity. I would like to
look at the faith of Christians from the first to the fourth
centuries from the Roman Catholic perspective. What we believe about
Jesus Christ is one thing; what we know about Jesus is something
else. St. Hilary, a fourth-century doctor of the Church, writes that
while God’s existence can be known by reason, God’s nature can never
Some early Christians questioned Christ’s divinity, but the majority
accepted Jesus as the Word of God in human form, because they
believed in the mystery of Christ’s resurrection. Brown never really
faces up to the most critical theological issue of all, which is the
validity of the Resurrection.
In her book Beyond Belief, Elaine Pagels, a historian of religion at
Princeton University, writes that around the end of the second
century, Christian leaders like Polycarp and Irenaeus developed a set
of instructional summaries of belief, termed the Rule of Faith, which
clearly affirmed the Christian belief in the divinity of Jesus
The fourth-century Council of Nicaea did not invent faith in Christ’s
divinity, because the New Testament already attested to that fact.
The integration of the Jesus of history with the Christ of faith
means that Jesus is not only the messenger of the kingdom, but he
himself is the message of God. Jesuit Karl Ralmer summed up Christ’s
identity this way: “Christ not only redeems humanity from sin, but
brings to perfection the divine plan of creation.” Israel plays a
pivotal role in God’s plan. The Roman centurion standing at the foot
of the cross publicly proclaimed his own faith-transformation when he
testified, “Clearly, this was the Son of God.”
Besides the historical evidence for Christ’s divinity, there is very
moving liturgical evidence. Professor Pagels points out that in the
second century, Pliny, a Roman governor in Asia Minor, said that two
female Christian slaves confessed under torture that Christians met
before dawn on a certain day of the week to sing a hymn to Christ as
to a god. Pliny had the slaves executed, because he said their
worship of Jesus Christ was an insult to the Roman gods.
The following century, Origen writes that John’s Gospel insists that
Jesus is not merely God’s servant, but God’s own light in human form.
The most ancient vesper evening prayer of Christianity is called the
Office of Light, or the Lucernarium. Christians sang it as a
liturgical witness to their belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ.
>From the late fourth century, this Vesper hymn was celebrated in the
Church of the Holy Sepulcher. All the lamps and torches of the church
were lighted, and the Lucernarium hymn was chanted. An even earlier
tradition says that at the end of the third century, in the Armenian
town of Sebaste, St. Athenogenes and 10 disciples were burned at the
stake for confessing Jesus Christ as Son of God in human flesh. As
the fires were ignited, the martyrs sang this Lucernarium canticle
Phos Hilarion: “O gracious Light, pure brightness of the ever living
Father in heaven, holy and blessed Jesus Christ.”
Jesus calls all to go back to the beginning, to that luminous state
of creation before the fall, where, as Messiah and Light of the World
revealed in human form, the Incarnate Word of God is divinely
appointed to rule the kingdom of God forever and forever.
The Rev. Stephen Lynch is the director of evangelization at St.
Francis Chapel and City Ministry Center in Providence.