By Rev. David Brinton OGS
The meaning of Holy Week which begins today, is explained by St Paul in this way:
“Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. 9Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2.5-11)
St Paul was a theological genius who conveyed the truth of God in Christ to the Mediterranean world of his own day with great artistry, and continues, by the power of the Spirit, to speak of these things to modern men and women. Throughout his letters he paints a picture of the utterly convincing beauty of this one unique life and sacrificial death – this act which is commemorated in the liturgies of Holy Week.
But, of course, it is not utterly convincing to everyone is it? It is not true that every tongue confesses Jesus Christ as Lord to the glory of God the Father. The beautiful truth of Jesus, emptying himself and being raised so that we, too might be raised with him, does not pierce every heart that encounters it.
Many who reject it say something like this: “It is irrational to believe in a God who is at once all powerful and all good. Just look at the world we live in, the world as it has always been. How could a God who is both all -powerful and all- loving permit the appalling pain and suffering we see all around us”
The Church has responded with many convincing arguments about the “problem of pain” as CS Lewis called it. But just as we start rehearsing these arguments, like Job’s comforters, the atheist stops us and says “yes, yes, but please, tell me how you can look at a dying child and say “God is love””.
To which the Christian might answer: you are right. Human suffering, especially innocent suffering, cannot be “explained” but, from within our suffering, a meaning can reveal itself in light of the Incarnation. God himself in Jesus Christ becomes one of us, vulnerable as we are, and suffers as we do, dying the most ghastly of deaths. And in this identification with us the suffering of the world is taken up into God’s heart. And this saves us.
“But” says the skeptic, “just because the school yard bully breaks his own arm after breaking mine doesn’t make my broken arm any more meaningful, or the bully any more loveable”.*
What a nasty, brutish answer to a complex problem, that is. But then, the immense suffering of the world is overwhelming, and the skeptic is right to be aghast at any trite or easy “explanations” for such suffering, explanations that seem more interested in protecting orthodoxy than in shedding tears of rage and pity for the wounds of the world.
Whether it is in our streets, in indigenous communities across this country, or in Ukraine… wherever… rage and pity, surely, are the proper response to the crucifixions we see all around us, …..not doctrine, not sermons.
And so, it is true, every knee doesn’t bend. Why haven’t this life and this death convinced the world, especially our own, the western world (largely formed we are told, by Judeo -Christian values)? It may be because of philosophical skepticism, of the kind I have mentioned, ….or maybe its because we just have too much to look at…. so much to tempt our gaze, in fact, that we are unable to see the true nature of what is set before our eyes, or to care. The fact that we know this doesn’t seem to make us immune to it. The Passion of Christ becomes one curiosity among many, if it is noticed at all, and we are numb to its life-changing power, unable to bend the knee in its presence.
Or does the blame lie with those who do bend the knee, with you and me? Paul himself hints at this elsewhere in the letter to the Philippians: “our bearing towards one another does not arise out of our life in Christ”. In other words, Christians do not very successfully live as though we have seen and known anything world-changing or life-transforming. The letter is written in part to convince the church in Philippi that they should be imitating this humbled Christ in their lives. Why would Paul have to write as he did if they already were? Clearly they weren’t.
In any case, there are many in the coming week who will catch glimpses of this life and this death. All sorts and conditions of people will be exposed once again to the ineffable beauty of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, as they have been for over 20 centuries….. and they will remain unmoved. For whatever reason, the almost intolerable love which we bathe in this week will leave some cold, perplexed, perhaps even vaguely nauseated.
What are we to say to them? And indeed what are we to say to the skeptical and doubting corners of our own souls?
Perhaps we need to keep a holy and humble silence, for we can offer no explanations, at least not this week. We can only set our gaze and look, beholding the beauty of the divine condescension meeting human longing on the tree of life, and in our gazing, enter more deeply into this holy life, which is our life. And perhaps, in that regarding, others will follow our gaze, and see for themselves the source of love that heals.