Jesus Christ is shown suffering on this Isenheim Altarpiece, Musée d'Unterlinden, Colmar
A depiction of Jesus Christ suffering on the cross, Isenheim Altarpiece, Musée d’Unterlinden, Colmar

Last Sunday, here at the Chapel, David Weber said that the purpose of Holy Week in the Christian calendar is “to induce in us a kind of amnesia, repressing our anticipation of the resurrection, so we experience resignation.”

The idea is that if we know how the story ends, we skip the hard stuff on our way to Easter Sunday. I think he’s right, especially if we hope to have some sort of experienced or emotional connection in the course of our collective remembering of the week of Christ’s sacrifice. (Though the love of God that comes to us in Jesus is provided for all people, the emotionally attuned and the emotionally oblivious alike.)

This question of our own foreknowledge during Holy Week brings to my mind the question of the nature of the foreknowledge of Jesus himself. As someone asked me once, “If Jesus knows all along that everything is going to turn out all right, doesn’t that make Good Friday into some sort of act?” This point of view would suggest that the suffering of Jesus and his obedience to that suffering is of less value (or less heroic) than the suffering of someone like the biblical Job because unlike Job, Jesus suffers while certain of a good outcome while Job can only hope for his restoration.

Some have tried to address this problem of Jesus’ privileged knowledge by arguing that Jesus doesn’t possess it, having emptied himself of his divine qualities when becoming human. The idea is that Jesus, in order to be human, sets aside divine power which presumably includes any knowledge of life on the other side of the cross. It’s a tempting idea, because it seems to solve a problem and seems to make Jesus’ suffering more relatable to our own – after all, when we’re going through tough times, we never really know how things are really going to turn out.

Such a description of Jesus, however, gives up more than it gains. First off, the idea of a human Jesus without access to divine power makes any of the miracles a hard sell. Equally critically, however, is that by taking this description of Jesus, we lose hold of the critically wondrous nature of the salvation story. It’s not that Jesus empties himself of his divinity and divine power, but rather that Jesus the God-(Hu)man is emptied of all power. God the almighty power by whom all things are made is completely undone by the criminal’s death on the cross. At that point, nobody knows what will happen next. Or more accurately, we think we know – everything is a bust.

Jesus’ “emptying” is best understood as the humiliating choice of the God-Human who has the opportunity to use his privilege for his own benefit but chooses not to. Instead he keeps solidarity with all creation which is powerless in the face of death.

Our attempts to fully understand the way the death of Jesus “works” inevitably fail with the limits of human language.

What we’re left with is ancient poetic assertion:

… Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God,

did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,

but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant,

being born in the likeness of men.

And being found in human form,

he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Therefore God has highly exalted him

and bestowed on him the name that is above every name,

so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,

in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

(Philippians 2:5-11)

 

Peace and joy,

Pr. Jim

April 12, 2017

Rev. James A. Wetzstein and Rev. Charlene M. Rachuy Cox serve as university pastors at Valpo and take turns writing weekly reflections.

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