Is Christ a revolutionary? The answer in part comes in considering the theme of “fulfillment” that extends throughout the Gospels. The concept of fulfillment is critical to our understanding of Christ – and ourselves.
Early in His ministry, when in the Nazareth synagogue, Jesus read from the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah. He concludes, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21). Jesus continues elsewhere in His public teaching: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Mt. 5:17).
In preparation for His journey to Jerusalem: “Then He took the twelve aside and said to them, ‘Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and all things which are written through the prophets about the Son of Man will be accomplished’” (Luke 18:31).
In the Garden, Jesus does not prevent His arrest but goes out of His way to confirm that He's not being seized as a revolutionary: "Every day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me, but this has taken place to fulfill the Scriptures." (Mk. 14:49).
After His sacred body is taken down from the Cross: “These things happened so that the scripture would be fulfilled: ‘Not one of his bones will be broken …’” (John 19:36).
After the Resurrection, on the road to Emmaus, Jesus explains to the disciples: “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them what referred to him in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:27).
As Christ “fulfills” Scriptures, His words and deeds unify the entirety of God’s revelation, extending back to Creation. Indeed, all salvation history is coherent because of the inherent unity of His “fulfillment.” Just as the individual pieces of a mosaic – however beautiful in themselves – are only coherent when viewed as a whole, the innumerable Scripture passages revealed in Old Testament history become coherent when fulfilled in Christ.
Expanding upon this unity of God’s revelation in Christ, we may further observe that Christ is not a political revolutionary. Revolutionaries overthrow existing social orders and establish new systems. Revolutions can be violent or, as we see in our day with the triumph of “political correctness,” nefariously subversive.
Christ does not obliterate history in His act of redemption. He does not deny history, nor does He represent a radical break from previous revelation. On the contrary, He loves history and embraces it. During His trial, Jesus willingly surrenders His “political power” to Pilate for purposes of fulfillment: “… are you not aware that I can call on My Father, and He will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen this way?” (Mt. 26:53).
In contrast, it doesn’t take much for societies to yield to a dangerous worldly revolutionary spirit that denies our past. When the crowds demanded the crucifixion of Jesus, Pilate taunted them with, “‘Shall I crucify your king?’” In their hatred of Jesus, the crowds rejected the entire history of God’s revelation and the historical role of “the Chosen People.” “‘We have no king but Caesar,’ the chief priests answered.” (cf. John 19:15). A truly breathtaking capitulation!
This destructive revolutionary spirit rejecting history and cultural heritage can be found in every generation at every level of society. Mass murder in the service of revolution quickly becomes expedient as we have seen in the last century. The Nazi’s began by burning books, but that wasn’t quite enough to effectively reject their Christian and cultural heritage. During WWII, the Soviets executed 22,000 Polish soldiers, leaders and academics in Katyn Forest with the express purpose of destroying the Polish cultural heritage that would have resisted the Communist ideology.
But revolutions are not always violent. In most Catholic universities today we would be hard pressed to find a significant minority of students who have a clear understanding of Catholic history and heritage. In many ways, the vast majority of our universities – including nominally Catholic schools – have gradually become politically correct re-education camps that rival in effectiveness the harshest of Communist brainwashing techniques.
Cut off from the past, we lose all appreciation for our heritage and take for granted – or mostly ignore – the heroic sacrifices of those who came before us. To the extent we even consider the past, we will always judge it by the latest intellectual fashions.
But with our loss of appreciation of the past, there can be no appreciation for the present. Set adrift from our heritage, all is negotiable for redefinition in the search for meaning. We will remain perpetually vulnerable to the malevolent designs of those in power. Such rootless confusion not only robs us of our destiny but diminishes our freedom and degrades our happiness.
The trickle-down effect of rejecting tradition significantly affects our personal lives. Cut off from tradition, all that remains is the unrestrained pursuit of self-interest with an ambition that distorts basic human decency (and the nagging fear that we might find ourselves on the receiving end of exploitation).
For example, the wholesale denial of history when it comes to human sexuality – in the name of “progress” – set in motion a chain reaction. The “sexual revolution,” aided and abetted by contraception and “no-fault” divorce, grew into a massive revolutionary attack on the marriage bond. As a result, “marriage” and human sexuality itself were rendered meaningless and incoherent, with the human wreckage of shattered families and lives – and dead unborn babies – predictable fruits. After revolutionaries destroy their culture and traditions, they destroy themselves.
Fortunately for us, the facts and coherence of salvation history always await rediscovery, even in the aftermath of every cultural dissolution. With no scribe to record His words at the time, Jesus consoles us with this assurance: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” (Mt. 24:35). History and all human life are inseparable; they are coherent because they are forever fulfilled in Christ. If we make the effort to ponder the meaning of fulfillment in Christ, we will be led to a deeper understanding as to our place in history and how God relates to us.
But make no mistake. Christ is indeed a “revolutionary.” His revolution does not deny history or man’s dignity. Nor is it violent or ideological. It is personal. His is a spiritual revolution that ultimately overthrows all sin, suffering, and death with sacrificial love. Our “radical transformation in Christ” does not involve the violent overthrow of regimes and social institutions, but the radical transformation of our souls with His grace in preparation for the end of our lives – and our entry into eternity.
In the meantime, it is profitable as individuals and as a nation to take an honest interest in history and culture. After all, Jesus did.
Father Jerry J. Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington. He is pastor of St. Catherine of Siena parish in Great Falls, Virginia.