Perhaps the most important question that Jesus ever asked his disciples is “Who do you say that I am?” In this remarkable book Gerald O’Collins, the well known author of many volumes on Christological topics, addresses this central theological question in a way that articulates his own deep personal spirituality.
Jesus: A Portrait presents his readers with a portrait of Christ that deals not simply with questions of historical interest, but also addresses the essential elements of the life of Jesus Christ including his preaching, miracles, death and resurrection, in a way that helps others to understand how he inspired centuries of believers. In this way, O’Collins develops his own interpretation of the Jesus’ life that is at once deeply grounded in the contemporary scriptural and theological studies and the spiritual life of a man who has dedicated his life to spreading the message of the kingdom of God. The work is thus just as much a work of Christian spirituality as it is a review of Christological principles.
O’Collins’ sketch of the life of Christ begins by outlining the beauty of Jesus and then proceeds to fill in this outline with stunning details featuring the preaching of the kingdom of God, Christ’s miracles, his parables and pedagogical style. Throughout this depiction of the life of Jesus O’Collins masterfully highlights the gentle, yet serious challenge that an encounter with Christ meant for those who met with him in the Gospels and with those who meet him today. For example, two chapters are dedicated to the miracles of Jesus. Unlike many texts today the focus in these chapters is on the significance of Jesus’ miraculous activity and not simply a rehashing of the question of their reality. In this portrait Jesus’ miracles stand out as a statement of God’s saving presence for the entirety of human life, both spiritual and physical.
This rendering of the life of Jesus culminates in a splendid representation of Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection. For example, in chapter nine, the reader finds an inspiring depiction of how Jesus faced his own death and how he understood its significance. Unlike Mel Gibson’s Jesus who confronted the reality of his death with superhuman serenity or Martin Scorsese’s Jesus who stumbles half-crazed into his death, O’Collins provides his readers with an interpretation of Jesus who quietly, yet resolutely, prepares himself for a burdensome task with a steady confidence that the Father would act on behalf of all humanity through his sacrifice. Also noteworthy is the final chapter of the book, which deals with the abiding presence of Jesus. In the manner of a master homilist, the author provides his readers with seven fundamental questions that Jesus used to challenge disciples in the Gospel of John. Questions such as, “Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me?” (Jn 14: 9) which Jesus lovingly posed to Philip, brings before all would-be followers of Jesus the poignant reality of the mystery of knowing and loving him.
While it is regrettable that O’Collins did not carry the theme of beauty that he established in his initial chapter through the entirety of the work as explicitly as some readers might have desired, he is amazingly adept at weaving the insights of modern biblical scholarship into a depiction of Christ that is both intimately personal and at times deeply moving. Thus the work is not so much a Christology textbook (although it might be used for this purpose in an undergraduate or adult faith-formation program) as a personal integration of a lifetime of theological research and publications. This book was a pleasure to read and is recommended especially to those working with students in formation for ministry.