Following in the Footsteps of Jesus. Meditations on the Gospels for Year A
José A. Pagola, Following in the Footsteps of Jesus. Meditations on the Gospels for Year A. Translated by Valentine de Souza, S.J. Miami: Convivium, 2010. 159 pages. $6.95. ISBN 978-1-934996-23-2.
Spanish Catholic biblical scholar José Pagola is a professor at St. Sebastian Seminary and at the Faculty of Theology of Northern Spain. He previously wrote Jesus, An Historical Approximation (Convivium, 2009), in which he reconstructs the historical Jesus using an exegetical and theological approach. The book for review here, however, is anything but scholarly or academic. In this small book, Pagola seeks to discover Jesus as the life-giver, not the object of historical inquiry. Poignantly he writes: “Christian life does not arise spontaneously in us. The truth of the gospel cannot always be reached through a process of reasoning. We need to meditate long on the words of Jesus. It is only through familiarity and association with the Gospels that we begin slowly to learn to live like him” (p. 23). He uses Jesus’ vine and branches illustration to underscore our need to actively maintain our connection to Jesus, through his words and life, if we are to be spiritually alive in the modern world.
Most Christians reading this review know about having a “quiet time.” Times set apart for reflection, meditation, prayer, and study are essential activities, among others, for spiritual formation. Christians within some church traditions will be familiar with the Liturgical Year--starting at Advent and then cycling through Lent, Easter, Pentecost, and the other parts of the church year. Using a lectionary approach, one come across prescribed readings for each Sunday, commonly following a repeating three-year cycle (Year A, B, and C) that eventually leads one to read through most of the Bible, and some parts of it--like the Psalms--repeatedly. In general for each Sunday there are readings from the Old Testament, Psalms, Gospels, and Epistles. Pagola writes within that tradition. He happens to be a Catholic, but many Protestants also engage in this practice of reading biblical texts. The Revised Common Lectionary is a joint effort of many denominations to standardize the readings (and often the preaching) of churches throughout the church year. See http://www.commontexts.org/ for more information on what the RCL is, and why a lectionary can be a useful tool.
In Following in the Footsteps of Jesus, Pagola writes a meditation for the Gospel reading for each Sunday of “Year A” in the liturgical cycle (the current Year A began with Advent 2010). As I write this in mid-May 2011, about halfway through the year, we are approaching the Sixth Sunday of Easter, and the readings are: Acts 17:22-31; Psalm 66:8-20; 1 Peter 3:13-22; and John 14:15-21. Pagola supplies the gospel text (from the NIV interestingly enough), adds his own brief commentary on that text, and more importantly, some devotional reflections that he hopes will draw in the reader to a more personal connection with Jesus. In glancing through his thoughts, I found them often provocative and challenging. He raises questions for personal consideration, but also repeatedly asks how following Jesus might help transform our churches. He laments the state of many churches that celebrate the Risen Jesus, the vine full of life, but which are made up of dead branches.
To take one example, he says about the John 14:15-21 reading for the sixth Sunday of Easter: “Perhaps the conversion we Christians are most in need of today is to move from a verbal, routine and unreal attachment to Jesus to an experience of a life rooted in the “Spirit of truth” (p. 78). Certainly it’s worth some considerable reflection for us to grasp for ourselves what being rooted in the Spirit could mean in real-life terms. Here a pen and paper (or laptop) in a quiet space seems a requirement for us to understand and then implement what Jesus intended when he promised to send “another Counselor” who would be with his followers forever (John 14:16-17).
Of course, as is true of any “devotional guide” or other prescribed aid to spiritual formation, nothing happens if one does not actually use it! This one is handy, pocket-sized (about 5 x 8½ inches in size), and inexpensive. For those using the lectionary, or for those who would like to learn the value of this tactic, I recommend Father Pagola’s tool. For other suggestions of tactics for personal Bible study, I shamelessly recommend my Handbook for Personal Bible Study (NavPress). But keep in mind that Bible study is not the end; it’s the means. It is a means to the worthy end of loving God with your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving your neighbor as yourself. If you’ve slipped out of the habit of engaging God’s Word in the Scriptures, get back to it. Whatever tool you use that helps you engage seriously the Bible’s message will profit your spiritual growth and will bless the church to which you belong. Pagola will help you listen to and follow Jesus. And if you’re Anglo and Protestant as I am (or anyone else for that matter), hearing from the perspective of a Spanish Catholic might also open up some fresh angles for your spiritual progress.
William W. Klein, Ph.D.
Professor of New Testament