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from issue no. 11 - 2005


The presence of Jesus in the world

The speech of the Jewish journalist and writer Alain Elkann at the conference on the “Face of faces. Christ”, which was held in Rome in October, the papers of which have now been published.

by Alain Elkann

Alain Elkann

Alain Elkann

His eminence Cardinal Angelini asks me to reflect and write about Jesus Christ and I have to say that it’s the first time I find myself doing so in the first person.
I had never written about him because I have too much respect for his religion, me being Jewish, to allow myself to judge or simply to state my opinion about such a delicate argument.
Delicate in the sense that while the Jews are still awaiting their Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth represents God who makes himself man for the Christians and therefore the Christian is already living his messianic era.
Jesus died crucified and immediately afterwards came the apostles, the Gospels, the Church, religious worship and the application of the Christian life which gradually spread throughout the world in all directions, thanks precisely to the work of the Church and its missions until it became an extraordinary example of religio-cultural globalization.
Christ today is present on all the continents of the world. Sometimes the Christian religion is dominant, at others it is a minority. In certain cases it is almost the official religion of a country, in others it struggles and lives almost on the margins and in its long bi-millennial history it was also many times the object of harsh discriminations and persecutions.
I can certainly not enter into a long discourse on the different Christian faiths, the schisms, the offshoots, the divisions still existing between the Catholic world, the Orthodox world, and the, so to speak, Protestant world.
All these religions however are Christian and assume that Christ is the son of God.
What Jesus Christ was when he was alive, why he died on the cross, why he rose again, are also questions that I believe it is not the case to enter into today. What I can say is that in the Western world, in Europe and especially in the Americas, the presence of Christ is naturally part of the life of everyone.
In the towns, in the countryside, in the small villages, the bells still ring the call to mass; in many hospitals, schools, public places, Christ on the cross hangs on the walls, and millions of people wear on their necks a chain with a crucifix or with the image of Christ.
Then there have always been numerous books and, in the modern world, records, films, theater shows, that have Jesus of Nazareth as protagonist.
Jesus manifests himself through men and women, religious and sometimes lay people, who are the Church and its religious orders. And thus through them and their tasks a Jesus definitely lives who is transformed into actions of worship, of charity, of health care, of school, of research, of social assistance, of voluntary service.
It is certainly in the name of Jesus and the Gospel that a great many men and women of faith work to help others, to apply Christian charity, to confess those who have need, to nurse the sick, to be near those who are afraid because ill or about to die: to enter the prisons and speak to those who want or seek to repent.
After Jesus the Church arose which I believe has the task of making the presence of God and his Son available in every aspect of daily life.
Certainly, in the history of an organization as ancient as the Church there are, according to me, dark moments, such as the period of the Inquisition, historical periods darker than others. But I prefer to think about the Church of today and not that of yesterday, of the popes I have seen at work during my lifetime: John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI. I was too small when Pius XII was still alive, though I do remember television images of him and black and white photos.
But under these popes I believe that great advance was made and I was not afraid of losing my Jewish identity in often seeking to encounter the Catholic world. So Christ therefore is in any case part of my life since childhood.
Sister Paolina came to give me injections when I was a small child, later it was Sister Giuliana who led me to know with her profound and serene spirit of the life of the children’s hospices in Turin.
Sister Germana on the other hand helped me to work with His Eminence Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini on the drafting of our book Cambiare il cuore, [Changing the heart].
A Rosminian father hosted me in his school in Valle d’Aosta to prepare for exams, and just like everyone else, I celebrated the Feast of the Madonna of the Snows on 5 August.
Later, in a Brazilian shanty-town, Don Arturo, a père of the Order of de Foucauld, brought me to understand what dedicating one’s life to Jesus and the Gospel meant and, even while carrying out the most menial tasks, he spoke to me a good deal about the fascination of God, of the gospels and of the figure of Jesus. He made me understand what the word confianca meant, that is to entrust oneself, to feel a profound faith that guides all the actions of our life.
Jesus teaching in the synagogue in Nazareth, a polychrome wood panel on the painted ceiling, second half of the 12th century, church of Saint Martin, Zillis, Switzerland

Jesus teaching in the synagogue in Nazareth, a polychrome wood panel on the painted ceiling, second half of the 12th century, church of Saint Martin, Zillis, Switzerland

Cardinal Martini led me to reflect on the word of God, on the Scriptures, on silence and on Jerusalem. He taught me how important it was to listen to others as our brothers.
It’s true that for me Jerusalem is the Jewish city, the city where one prays at the Wailing Wall, but the presence of Jesus is immensely strong everyplace in that city. Besides one knows that Jesus was Jewish, he lived among those walls, in that landscape, in those places that today are sacred also for the Muslims. It’s true that everywhere in Israel, in Palestine, one feels the presence of the Christ who was born, lived and died there. But, as I have said on other occasions, I see the course of our Judeo-Christian history as the journey of a train that for the Jews set off more than five thousand years ago and which the Christians boarded two thousand years ago.
The fact that I do not believe I am living in the Messianic age does not mean that I don’t have respect and feelings of joy, of fraternal closeness also, for those instead who have already received the Messiah and experience a state of profound inner happiness every time they feel Him near.
I well understand that it must be fascinating for those who have the good fortune to be believers, to have the faith and be able to live in a religion that allows them to pray, to be able also to turn to the Son of God, who wanted to bring God into the being of man, and become thereby an image. The Jews speak directly with God, who is however not represented in any way.
I don’t say it with regret, I am very proud of my destiny as a Jew.
I think that if we have existed for so many years and that no persecution, even the most barbarous, has succeeded in exterminating us completely or in silencing us forever, that this is part of a divine plan that is not for us men to understand. I think that Pope John Paul II did well to define Jews as «elder brothers». They are so, not by age, but because they keep alive a tradition, a very ancient religion which is moreover that of Jesus.
I think that it is not by chance that Jesus was a Jew; therefore a large part of the journey of Jews and Christians is a shared path that for the one and the other occurs in the places described in the Bible.
What does the presence of Jesus mean in the world today? I think it is one of humanity’s great messages of peace, a wonderful answer as to how a human life should be led so that it may be as serene and happy as possible.
Jesus is a great message of hope and solidarity for the world, much in need of it today, and his Church has shown and shows that it still knows how to be a formidable organization of peace, of charity and of love.
The Pope is an indefatigable defender of good, of peace, of youth, of the sick and the needy.
Jesus then is ethics, justice, poetry and inspiration. Masterpieces of art, in the last two millennia, from music to painting, to sculpture, to Western architecture have been of Christian inspiration and Italy is still today the living witness of this. The painted and sculpted crucifixes, the scenes of the life of Christ and the apostles have inspired the greatest artists, of every century and generation.
The Face of faces. Christ, edited by the International Institute of Research on the Face of Christ, Velar, Bergamo 2005, 300 pp., S.I.P.

The Face of faces. Christ, edited by the International Institute of Research on the Face of Christ, Velar, Bergamo 2005, 300 pp., S.I.P.

Because of this Jesus is such a well-known and familiar figure to those who are not Christian, because people of extraordinary talent have devoted their work to trying to interpret him, to imagine him, as a model, as a hero, as a martyr, as a friend.
At this point I feel urged to pose myself a question. How would the world be without Jesus? Truly very different and also difficult to imagine. Jews are few and always were, Muslims are more recent and come after Christianity.
Perhaps without Christians there wouldn’t be Muslims either. Perhaps there would have been another son of God someplace. The fact however that one cannot think about history without Christ means in itself that he was a human necessity and men felt the need of him.
I think it difficult to go on, as I have been doing for too long, continuing in the void, trying that is to imagine what Christ is when one is only a writer, a journalist.
Over the passage of years I have had great experience of love and profound friendship that has bound me to the Christian presence. I have felt close to me and loved tenderly people of faith who had a very deep feeling for Jesus that inspired and guided them throughout life. I have a Catholic wife who always carries Rosary beads with her and keeps them close at every moment of her life. A rosary that was given her as a gift by Monsignor Caffarra, the archbishop of Bologna and that belonged to his mother.
My wife had to face life without a mother to bring her up and be close to her, and I believe that her faith in Jesus always helped her to carry on. For me this is a reason for great respect and makes me understand what deep strength the presence of Jesus gives to her life.
But perhaps we understand the presence of Jesus in the world better when we see an American Indian woman on television, gazing inconsolably at the ruins of her city: «Since Katrina came where has Jesus gone to?» The sense of abandonment and impotence in the face of the silence of Jesus, who seemed to have left her alone and abandoned her city, tells us how Jesus makes his lack felt in his absence. The woman actually does not ask him to explain himself, but to came back and console her, not to distance himself.
Hers is not a reproach, but a request for love.

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