Our second reading this Palm Sunday, from the Christ hymn in Philippians, says, “he humbled himself, becoming obedient.” The Letter to the Hebrews says it more boldly: “Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb 5:8). He, the all-knowing, learned obedience . . . .
What exactly does Christ accomplish in Holy Week? He is already God – what more can the work of the Cross add to that?
Our first reading tells us first about the development of Isaiah the prophet himself – but also about what happens to Christ.
First he says, “The Lord GOD has given me a well-trained tongue, that I might know how to speak to the weary a word that will rouse them.” The prophet must know – must learn – how to speak to those who need his message.
Next he emphasizes the learning: “Morning after morning he opens my ear that I may hear.” The prophet has to listen – and even that listening is itself a gift from God. Lord, teach me how to speak to the weary!
But then we hear what method he learned: “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard.” This method was suffering. To speak to the suffering, the weary, the beleaguered, the prophet had to become like them, to enter into their darkness. Perhaps, even, he had to let those who were beaten beat him – then they could hear him.
Finally, he tells how he can do this: “The Lord GOD is my help, therefore I am not disgraced; I have set my face like flint.” Isaiah “learns” to “speak” more than words. He learns how to suffer for the people, because he learns – and so can teach – that God is all-sufficient.
What does Jesus “learn” through suffering? He has nothing to learn, he knows all. But he learns how to preach, how to bring his Gospel to the people. He learns, even, how to call them in, to let them share with him. He enters into their suffering to be near them. He brings his nearness to God into their darkness to enlighten them and raise them up.
Jesus, then, says the hymn in Philippians, “humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death.” He who knew all joy learned to say in the Garden, “my soul is sorrowful even to death.” He whose very existence was joyful obedience to the Father learned to say, “Take this cup away from me – but not what I will but what you will.”
He who was revelation itself learned to speak the words of the Psalm: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” What Christ our light “gained” through the Cross was union with us who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
“Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name.” Already he was Son, God from God, light from light: above every name.
But now he achieves a new name: Jesus. Right there at the beginning of the Gospel, the angel told Joseph, “you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” and “they shall call his name Immanuel (which means, God with us)” (Mt. 1:21 and :23). He gained nothing – but closeness to us.
On the Cross, he who as God had everything “adds” to that possession the name “God with us.” He who is fulness itself “adds” the title “he will save his people from their sins,” the name of that “name above all names,” Jesus.
How can we comment on the endless fullness of the Gospel of the Passion? He learned how to preach – and there is no commentary we can add to match the nearness of that preaching through suffering.
In the spikenard and the ransom to Judas we see the inversion of our relation to money. We see the inversion of Judas’ greed and the gentle generosity of Jesus giving bread. We see Jesus turn politics upside down as he lets Pilate condemn him to being named King.
In the stories of Peter we see Jesus “learn” what it means to be abandoned. But most marvelously, we see that Peter too learns – learns that Jesus knows abandonment, and so learns Jesus’s nearness to him in his sin. What Jesus “learns” is the perfection of preaching, by emptying himself and taking the form a slave. And so we, with Peter, learn to enter into his divinity by entering into his humility.
Where do we need to empty ourselves to let Jesus draw near?