The Way of BeautySuffering and Beauty Part 4

In St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians (2:5-11), universal redemption is proclaimed. Jesus saves all men and women by canceling out Adam’s pride and disobedience with humility and obedience.  As a result, all men and women are liberated in spirit and in truth accompanied by our cooperation with God’s grace not to refuse the grace of redemption. Christ’s redemption is revealed in verses 2:5-11 In this reflection, we will consider verses 6-8.

1. “Though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped . . .” (v 6)

The plan of salvation was anticipated in the Hebrew Scriptures with the Messiah’s advent.  Only the New Adam, Christ, could repair the sin of the Old Adam. At stake was man’s absolute need of a savior, the divine initiative and plan to accomplish it, and Mary’s acceptance of the plan on behalf of the human race.   This mission of Jesus finds its expression in the Son’s prayer: “Father, you have given me all that you have, and I have returned all to you; I came from you and have believed that it was you who sent me” (Jn 5:30, 36-38, 43; 7:16,28-29, 35; 8:16,18,42). Jesus’ love for all will lead to the cross, and the cross will lead to the resurrection glory, and redemptive healing.  His followers will be asked to walk in his footsteps.

2.  “... but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (vv 6-7)

The Pauline phrase, “he emptied himself” refers in the first place to the Incarnation.  Jesus’ kenosis means that “the one who is empty has freely chosen to deprive himself of something he already possesses. Though Jesus anticipated his death, he did not seek it out; he accepted it. Love led to self-giving, and self-giving led to his glory. Love was the only reason for his obedience and abasement as a criminal.

3.  ...“and being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even to death on a cross.” (v 8)

The obedience of Jesus on the tree of the cross reversed the disobedience at the tree in the Garden.  If the Hebrew Scriptures confirm the messianic prophecies, what is the significance of the Christian scriptures?  What was Jesus’ attitude toward his passion and death?  Jesus gives his followers the example par excellence of how to suffer with dignity and with love.  The human condition that Jesus freely entered into brought him to the brink of despair.

Jesus’ Solidarity with Humankind

The scene of the Agony in the Garden surprises us.  On the verge of crisis, Jesus prays not for strength, courage, and acceptance of his Father’s will.  Instead we witness the human repugnance, the horror, the revolt, and the effort to escape. With the arrival of the final hour, Jesus becomes everyman when he cries out with the Psalmist, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Ps 22:1).   He pours himself out, “tasting death for everyone” (Heb 2:9), but his plea is made without despairing. Jesus seeks consolation from his Father, because his life has been spent pleasing his Father (Jn 8:29).  But now, he feels abandoned by the one he most loves.  It is as if the Father “loads” on him the full burden of sin that is “absolutely opposed to God.”  Jesus trusts his Father to the very end.   Psalm 22 ends on a note of hope; the Lord has not hidden his face from the suffering soul.

Finally, “it is finished,” and Jesus releases his Spirit (Jn 19:30).   His powerlessness is shot through with God’s power to save, and his obedience of love is raised high in final glorification. Everything has been pared down to two aspects of one reality: love as the reason for his suffering and total dependency on the Father.

Although Jesus has fulfilled the Scriptures, his suffering is not that of a passive man but of one who actively receives and responds.   The drama of Jesus’ suffering of love was undertaken pro me and pro nobis, and every man and woman is a player on the stage of this spectacular tableau. Each of us is Judas and Peter, the thieves, the crowds, and the guards, Simon, Veronica, and the beloved disciple. To the question, why suffering, we respond:  the cross is illogical and has always contradicted human logic. It is folly, a scandal, a stumbling-block (1Cor 1: 21-22).  For the disciple of Christ, the only logic is that of love. At the same time, the Psalmist often encourages the Israelites to pour out their complaints to the Lord and tell him of all their troubles.  They do so repeatedly.

Contemporary logic, which boasts of self-sufficiency, rejects Christ’s condition as a  scandalous disgrace.  But Jesus helps his disciples to make sense out of suffering, not according to the human way of thinking, but according to his.  He brings his followers to the cross and, sooner or later, expects us to understand it as christological logic.   Despite Paul’s emphatic declaration that the cross is God’s wisdom and power to save (1 Cor 1:17, 25; 2:5), St. Catherine of Siena strikes at the heart: “Oh, Loving Madman!  Was it not enough for Thee to become Incarnate, that Thou must also die?” (St. Catherine of Siena, The Dialogue, 91.)

God’s Foolishness: Two Examples from the Hebrew Scriptures

The Book of Exodus initiates us into God’s folly.  Despite Yahweh’s commands that Moses seek the release of his people from the Pharaoh, Moses is forewarned.  God will make the ruler obstinate so that he will refuse the request. When all seems lost, God’s inscrutable logic saves the Jews in the Passover-Exodus event. God’s foolishness is wiser than Moses’ logic.  The Jewish Exodus was all God’s work. In the Broadway musicale, “Fiddler on the Roof,” the character of Tevye pours out his troubles to the Lord and wryly comments: “Lord, I know that we are the Chosen People, but for a change can’t you choose someone else?”

Job offers another example of God’s folly.  Job has proved himself a good and faithful servant.  A man who has everything suddenly loses all.  His loss is unmerited. Anguish afflicts body and soul.  He condemns himself and rubs in his failures.  He revolts but refrains from cursing God, as his friends urge.   The first point the Book of Job makes is that suffering is not evidence of sin.  When Job’s friends muse that he has sinned to deserve such misery, the reader knows this to be false.  Job’s suffering was a test of his faith: even as he grew angry with God for being unjust–wishing he could sue him in a court of law–he never abandoned his belief. 

Job’s moral outrage prompts God’s response, thereby demonstrating that the sufferer who believes is never alone. God’s voice “out of the whirlwind” carries a less than satisfying response:  “Where were you when I laid the Earth’s foundations? Do you really want to reverse my judgment, and put me in the wrong to put you in the right” (Job 40:83)?  God’s designs are inscrutable.  Though God does not come out of this narrative very well, Job has no response and falls silent.  Examples in the Christian scriptures abound with questions about God’s foolishness.  In the case of Martha, she complains:
“Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died, cries Martha (Jn 11:21)  Her despair is surely understandable, but it is transformed into joy when Jesus raises Lazarus from death.

On September 14th, the Church “lifts high the cross” because God’s weakness and folly  prove wiser and stronger than the wisdom and strength of creatures. Suffering has no human logic, but Jesus, in his human nature, shows us how to suffer. Without the suffering of love, acceptance of pain is a servile act. The lesson is simple, if maddening.  Like Moses and Job, we do not save ourselves in the way we want.  Each of us is saved by God’s providential power and our cooperation expressed through humility and “the obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5). The final part of this reflection will consider the glory of the Lord.

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