James Martin, S.J., the engaging author of this book on Jesus, had to be persuaded to travel to the Holy Land by his fellow Jesuit, Drew Christiansen, S.J., then editor in chief of America. Martin felt he knew enough about Jesus and the Gospels from a lifetime of study and reflection and didn’t need to travel to the Middle East. But he finally agreed to go—and the readers of this book on Jesus will be grateful.
This book on Jesus of the Gospels joins a host of other such explorations, but it has its own special flavor and spirit. The author, a popular spiritual writer and frequent spokesperson on behalf of the Catholic Church, draws deeply on several wellsprings in the composition of the book. One is the two-week trip to the Holy Land Martin made in the company of a Jesuit friend. He visited all the pertinent sites, especially those connected with the ministry of Jesus. As one who has taken numerous groups to these spots over the years, I thoroughly enjoyed Martin’s account of his visits and experiences.
A second source is his competent acquaintance with current biblical scholarship about the historical Jesus. He does not pretend to be a frontline scholar on this subject, but his own theological training and wide reading in the area enable him to speak accurately and in an easily accessible manner of what we know and don’t know about the historical circumstances of Jesus’ life and times.
A third source is his Jesuit background. He speaks frequently and affectionately of his Jesuit vocation, his experiences in the formation program and in his Jesuit community life and ministry as a Jesuit, including stints in East Africa and the Caribbean. Martin’s obvious joy and satisfaction in his religious life, coupled with his honest and open personal manner, makes his work an unwitting vocational poster for the Jesuit priesthood.
And, finally, Martin offers the reader a wealth of spiritual reflection on all of the above. This, ultimately, is the point of the book, which he describes as inviting the reader “to meet the Jesus you already may know, but in a new way. Or, if you don’t know much about Jesus, I would like to introduce him to you. Overall, I would like to introduce you to the Jesus I know, and love, the person at the center of my life.” To achieve this heartfelt goal, the author shares his own joys and sorrows, his moments of tears and ecstasy as well as his frustrations and struggles. The overall tone of the book at these points is like a well-crafted homily on various facets of the Gospel accounts: personal, narrated with passion, filled with examples and stories, leading to sound reflections on the meaning of Christian life led in the spirit of the Gospel.
Father Martin artfully blends these various wellsprings in each chapter of this rather substantial book (over 500 pages). A visit to a particular site or region of the Holy Land triggers a reflection on some aspect of Jesus’ life and ministry, which in turn leads to a wider reflection on Christian life. Some of these are fairly predictable paths, others less so. Watching some fishermen ply their trade on the Sea of Galilee, for example, leads to a reflection on the stories of the call of the first disciples and then to a reflection on how we are called by Christ today, a reflection further illustrated in an earlier encounter Martin had with a young man who was searching for meaning in his own life.
Discovering the coves along the northwest corner of the Sea of Galilee’s shoreline and surmising that this could have been the spot mentioned in the Gospels where Jesus preached from Simon’s boat (Lk 5:1-11) leads to a discussion of the parables and culminates in a reflection on the parable of the lost sheep, illustrated by an experience of the shepherd’s care for the sheep Father Martin had during his mission work in Kenya and the key lesson that God will never abandon us.
The overall flow of the book attempts to follow the unfolding story of Jesus in the Gospels, beginning with his baptism at the Jordan River and culminating with the passion of Jesus in Jerusalem and his final resurrection appearance in Galilee along the Sea of Tiberias as recounted in John 21. As those who have traveled to the Holy Land know, such a neat chronological and geographical framework is difficult since the Gospel stories move back and forth across the terrain; some repetition and backtracking in Martin’s visits to sites is inevitable. Nevertheless, the value of Martin’s work is not in the flow of the overall presentation of Jesus’ life and mission but in the beautiful and enticing individual reflections that come with each site he visits and with his compelling portrayal of the Jesus of the Gospels and his meaning for Christian life.