#faithseeking: wholy weak

so, we’re back to work – well, at least for now. one weekend Jesus dies then comes back to life, the next some smiley, rich people have their TV wedding paid for by our taxes. one of these holidays is worthy of RQT attention.

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there are numerous of ways of interpreting the Easter story, all of which affect, in turn, the interpretation of Christ. how we conceive of his work affects how we conceive of his nature: soteriology and Christology are intertwined.

orthodoxy stipulates that Christ is fully God and fully man, but, beyond this mystery, a vast range of interpretive options stand. the tendency, however, is for interpretations of Easter to emphasise Christ the God. the logic runs that Christmas is when we reflect on the transition from eternal divinity to finite humanity, and Easter is when we chart the reversal of that process.

as such, interpretations of Easter often become way of understanding how Christ’s humanity functioned as a diminutive foil to his ultimate divinity.

for St Basil, who saw the cross as the location of a cosmic trick, Christ’s humanity is in some way an elaborate deception that paves the way for the triumph of his divinity. for St Anselm, it is simply the necessary condition to enable due legal process – Christ must be human for a time in order for the system to work.

according to various other interpretations, Easter shows us how Christ’s humanity was a necessary vehicle for suffering – suffering being understood as that which brings about change. for some, Christ’s pains make satisfaction: God is set against God for our sake, and violence acts as a purifier.

in Mel Gibson’s The Passion Of The Christ, Jesus’ divinity allows his humanity to suffer to a superhuman extent. they whip him down, but he gets back up. again and again. the soldier who confesses that Jesus was ‘truly God’s son’, appears to do so largely on the basis of how much punishment he was able to withstand. here, the (David Copperfield-esque) resurrection is the ultimate manifestation of sadomasochistic glee.

i find Gibson’s near-superhuman, glint-eyed Christ extremely offensive. if Christ is fully human, then his sufferings must be fully human also. Jesus died exhausted, naked, covered in his own shit and with an erection, just like every other criminal the Romans ever crucified.

one of the emphases in Paul’s interpretation is that the work of God in Christ is the making of weakness into strength. i think this is one of the ideas that lies behind Gibson’s superhero Christ, but for me he fails to see just how radical this Pauline conception of ‘strength’ is. this is not physical, warrior-like strength summoned at a time of apparent weakness – it is not about a masquerading hero who chooses to let the baddies think he’s weak even though he’s incredibly strong. for me, this weakness-strength is about something fundamentally other than might and power.

not only do i think that all the hierarchical conceptions of the two natures mentioned above are crypto-docetic and counter to orthodoxy’s radical dialectic, i also think they gloss over details of the Easter story that we do well not to miss. one of the most important of these is Gethsemane.

many people find Good Friday difficult. liberals always want to skip straight to Sunday, where everything is made nice again. conservatives (like Gibson) are eager to linger on the agonies – the brutal torture that buys our health.

if Gethsemane doesn’t get ignored, then it is primarily the site of the disciples’ final failure, or the place where Christ’s physical torment begins (sweat so profuse that it’s like drops of blood seems often to become actual haemorrhaging in the conservative imagination). however, what, in my experience, tends not to figure prominently in Good Friday reflections is the psychological trauma, the mental breakdown that precedes the physical collapse.

just as in society, so in theology. ‘physical’ suffering is less disquieting than mental suffering. it can be more easily perceived, empathised with and ultimately rationalised. the truth is, however, that the synoptic accounts of Gethsemane (Mark 14. 35-37; Matt 26. 38-40; Luke 22. 40-45) testify to a weak, scared man in way that many Christians find too difficult to encounter. why would Jesus, the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity break down and beg not to have to go through with the scheme that God had planned from all eternity? yes, why indeed?!

kenotic theology gets something of a bad press nowadays. a bit like Liberation Theology, people seem to think that because some of its expressions were found to be problematic that we can now safely ignore it.

for me, however, it still offers the best fit when it comes to a way of understanding Christology that marries well with a way of understanding history. the Greek word kenosis means emptying or pouring out, and its most famous use is found in what is thought to be an early Christian hymn, quoted by Paul in his letter to the Philippians.

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied (ekénōsenhimself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil 2. 5-11)

despite the fact that it seems to endorse at least two notions that the Church calls heresy (“human likeness” and “human form” both smack of Docetism, and “Therefore God also highly exalted him…” more than likely testifies to a form of Adoptionism), i am of the opinion that the Philippian hymn is full of theological insight. in particular, i find the notion that Christ “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited” a very useful reflection on incarnation and the riddle of the two natures.

where the NRSV has “something to be exploited” i prefer a translation of arpagmon that brings out the sense of something being seized, held, or grabbed on to – perhaps “did not regard equality with God as something to cling on to”. in a sense, I think Christ’s pre-incarnate status is both something that could have been exploitable – i.e. something that would have rendered true incarnation problematic – and something that it was necessary for him not to clutch, hold tightly, or covet, but to let go of, to give up.

for me the logic of the incarnation at large, but also the details of the Easter story make more sense when considered alongside this notion of Christ’s giving up of his status as equal with God. not only does this conceptual framework throw interesting and useful light on Gethsemane and the crucifixion, it also pleasingly illuminates a nice little detail in the resurrection narrative.

a favourite scene of the Great Masters down through the ages, there are numerous paintings of the post-resurrection encounter between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, classically entitled Noli Me Tangere. the phrase is the Latin rendering of John 20.17 where Jesus instructs Mary “do not touch me, for I have not yet ascended to my father.”

whereas some people take a daft, sci-fi inspired approach to interpreting this verse – Mary couldn’t touch Jesus because he hadn’t fully re-materialised (or something) – a more plausible interpretation, and one that happens to mesh pleasingly with the above reflections of the Philippian hymn, emerges by virtue of a better translation. the Greek haptou properly suggests not mere touching, but holding or grasping on to.

in the same way that the Philippian hymn claims Christ had to be willing not to hold on to his equality with God in order for the incarnation to come about, so Jesus tells Mary, probably his most loved companion, that she must now not hold on to him. for me, this is a moment of Gethsemane-like weakness. i think Jesus is begging Mary (like he begged the Father) not to hold him – it is as if he knows that if she does, he will never be able to let her go. as Nikos Kazantzakis knew, Christ’s last temptation is the temptation to stay, to allow himself to be held on to.

the mystery of Easter is death made life and weakness made strength. and yet, i think we can’t really embrace Easter’s true life, its true strength, unless we are fully open to the reality of its death, and the real fragility of its weakness.

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