Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
On The Way to Jesus Christ

The farewell discourses of Jesus, as the Gospel of John presents them to us, hover in a singular way between time and eternity, between the present hour of the Passion and the new presence of Jesus that is already dawning, because the Passion itself is at the same time his “glorification” as well. On the one hand, the darkness of the betrayal, of the denial, of the abandonment of Jesus to the ultimate ignominy of the Cross weighs upon these discourses; in them, on the other hand, it seems that all of this has already been overcome and resolved into the glory that is to come.

Thus Jesus describes his Passion as a going away that leads to a new and fuller coming–as a state of being-on-the-way with which the disciples are already acquainted.[1] Thereupon Thomas, surprised, asks the question, “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” Jesus answers with a statement that has become one of the central texts of Christology: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.”

This revelation of the Lord, however, elicits a new question now-or rather, a request, which this time is made by Philip: “Lord, show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied.” Again Jesus replies with a revelatory word, which leads from another perspective into the very depths of his self-consciousness, into the very depths of the Church’s faith in Christ: “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:2-9). The primordial human longing to see God had taken, in the Old Testament, the form of “seeking the face of God”. The disciples of Jesus are men who are seeking God’s face. That is why they joined up with Jesus and followed after him. Now Philip lays this longing before the Lord and receives a surprising answer, in which the novelty of the New Testament, the new thing that is coming through Christ, shines as though in crystallized form: Yes, you can see God. Whoever sees Christ sees him.

This answer, which characterizes Christianity as a religion of fulfillment, as a religion of the divine presence, nevertheless immediately evokes a new question. “Already and not yet” has been called the fundamental attitude of Christian living; what this means becomes evident precisely in this passage. For the next question is now (for all of post-apostolic Christianity, at least): How can you see Christ and see him in such a way that you see the Father at the same time?

This abiding question is placed in the Gospel of John, not in the discourses in the Cenacle, but rather in the Palm Sunday account. There it is related that some Greeks, who had made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to worship, came to Philip–that is, to the disciple who in the Cenacle would voice the request to see the Father. These Greeks present their request to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, an extensively Hellenized part of the Holy Land: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus”‘ (Jn 12:20-21). It is the request of the pagan world, but it is also the request of the Christian faithful of all times, our request: We want to see Jesus. How can that happen?

Jesus’ response to this request, which was conveyed to the Lord by Philip together with Andrew, is mysterious, like most of the answers that Jesus gives in the fourth Gospel to the great questions of mankind that are posed to him. It is not recorded whether there was an actual encounter between Jesus and those Greeks. Jesus’ answer, instead, opens up a horizon that is completely unexpected at this point. For Jesus sees in this request an indication that the moment of his glorification has come. He suggests in greater detail in the following words how this glorification will come about: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jn 12:24).

The glorification occurs in the Passion. This is what will produce “much fruit”–which is, we might add, the Church of the Gentiles, the encounter between Christ and the Greeks, who stand for the peoples of the world in general. Jesus’ answer transcends the moment and reaches far into the future: Indeed, the Greeks shall see me, and not only these men who have come now to Philip, but the entire world of the Greeks. They shall see me, yes, but not in my earthly, historical life, “according to the flesh” (cf. 2 Cor 5:16 [Douay Rheims]); they will see me by and through the Passion. By and through it I am coming, and I will no longer come merely in one single geographic locality, but I will come over all geographical boundaries into the farthest reaches of the world, which wants to see the Father.

Jesus announces his coming from the perspective of his Resurrection, his coming in the power of the Holy Spirit, and so he proclaims a new way of seeing that occurs in faith. The Passion is not thereby left behind as something in the past. It is, rather, the place from which and in which alone he can be seen. Jesus expands the parable of the dying grain of wheat that is fruitful only in death into the proper and fundamental pattern for human existence: “He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If any one serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there shall my servant be also” (Jn 12:25-26). The seeing occurs in following after, Following Christ as his disciple is a life lived at the place where Jesus stands, and this place is the Passion. In it, and nowhere else, is his glory present.

What does this demonstrate? The concept of seeing has acquired an unexpected dynamic. Seeing happens through a manner of living that we call following after. Seeing occurs by entering into the Passion of Jesus. There we see, and in him we see the Father also. From this perspective the words of the prophet quoted at the end of the Passion narrative of John attain their full greatness: “They shall look on him whom they have pierced” (Jn 19:37; cf. Zech 12:10).[2]

Seeing Jesus, in whom we see the Father at the same time, is a thoroughly existential act. From the verbal perspective we must add that the concept of the “face of Christ” is not found in these Johannine texts. Yet they are implicitly connected with a central theme of the Old Testament, concerning an essential attitude of piety that is described in a series of texts as “seeking the face of God”. Despite the difference in terminology; there is a profound continuity between the Johannine “looking on Christ” and the Old Testament “being on the way” toward looking upon the face of God.

In Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians the verbal connection is also to be found, when he writes about the glory of God that appears in the face of Christ (2 Cor 4:6). We will have to return to this later. Both John and Paul refer us to the Old Testament. The New Testament texts about seeing God in Christ are deeply rooted in the piety of Israel; by and through it they extend through the entire breadth of the history of religion or, perhaps to put it better: They draw the obscure longing of religious history upward to Christ and thereby guide it toward his response.

If we want to understand the New Testament theology of the face of Christ, we must look back into the Old Testament. Only in this way can it be understood in all its depth.


[1] Romano Guardini has described this interpretation of the farewell discourses very beautifully in: The Lord: Reflections on the Person and the Life of Jesus Christ, trans. Elinor Castendyk Briefs (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1954), pp. 374-80.

[2] For the interpretation of John 19:37, see also Rudolf Schnackenburg, Das Johannesevangeluin 3 (Herder, 1975), pp. 343-45 [English trans., The Gospel according to St. John (New York: Crossroad, 1982)].