In the days when Christ Jesus was in the flesh,
he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears
to the one who was able to save him from death,
and he was heard because of his reverence.
Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered;
and when he was made perfect,
he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him. (NAB)
Powerful, powerful, powerful. That was my first response to Hebrews 5:7-9 when I read it today. I am not certain if you could call it a gut reaction, as that suggests only an emotional response, as opposed to an intellectual response, but my sense is that the intellect and emotions are more tightly tied together than we know, or perhaps want to admit. It seems that when Christ was in the flesh he too responded emotionally to his human dilemma – the author of Hebrews is here evoking his Passion in particular – "he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears." Is there any way not to see "loud cries and tears" as an emotional response? When I suffer, from my own sin and stupidity, or the reality of a sinful world and its brokenness, it is often with tears, sometimes loud cries - though I try to rein those in when possible, though not always successfully. These evocations of Jesus’ emotions, more than any other aspect of his Incarnation, connect me to his humanity. Those of us who have lived long enough have suffered, and it does not take long to share in this commonality of human experience. A few years ago, I heard an actress, or perhaps it was simply someone interviewed for a news story, say she had never had a "bad day ever" in her whole life. She blurted it out as a triumph, but it made me feel sad for her. Here was someone who had averted her gaze from reality, both her’s and that of the world at large, to create a kind of happy bubble, the sort that inevitably burst.
I do not wish suffering on anyone, but I wish reality for everyone. Ultimately, reality pays off, while the illusion only lets you down. I should be clear, though, I do not think reality means life is terrible so grow up and get used to the fact that all your dreams are bound to fail. I reject this view of reality - why is pain and suffering more real than joy and happiness? But nor do I think that reality is averting one’s gaze from suffering and pretending that everything is unicorns, gummy bears, and fields of candy canes. Somewhere between never having a "bad day ever" and "everything sucks" is reality. And because of Jesus’ willingness to accept the will of his Father in heaven, reality, the good and the bad, has been redeemed. Note that Hebrews states that Jesus was heard by "the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence." Yet, being heard did not mean that Jesus could avert the suffering for which his life was destined, it meant that he could accept the suffering willingly and because of the suffering gain redemption through the cross for all humanity. This is Christ’s "reverence": his obedience to the Father. Because he was "Son" he molded himself in the image of "Father," the ideal image of Father and Son in the ancient world.
Theologically, going back to the Arian controversy, the next line, "when he was made perfect," has been the subject of debate, with some arguing that this indicated that Christ was not "true God from true God" but one who was "adopted" as Son by the Father. In this context, though, it is clear that this does not impinge on Christ’s divine being, but on his earthly obedience to the Father’s will. The word teleioo, here translated as "made perfect" (as it is also for instance in Matthew 5:48), has the sense also of "maturity," as it is translated in a number of places in Paul’s letters (see Philippians 3:15). The basic range of meaning encompasses "to complete" or "to fulfill," with the sense of to bring something to its intended purpose. It was by Jesus remaining true to his intended purpose that he was able to bring us to salvation. This is the redemption of reality, and though we cannot claim that every day here on earth is perfect, Jesus’ obedience is the reason why it is no illusion to say that even when we suffer we know that God is with us and that eternity is never a bad day. Ever. I know this with my head, but I feel it in my gut.