This week, our holy week, we walk with Jesus from his glorious procession into the city to his death on the cross, from “Hosannah!” to “Crucify him.”
Lent comes to a climax in Jerusalem, the city of contradictions: a place of worship and idolatry, great faith and horrific scandal, light and darkness. In contrast to Jesus’ faithfulness we find massive betrayal. Consider: Judas who sells out the Lord; chief priests who fake a trial, disciples who sleep and then run away, Peter who denies him, Pilate who condemns him knowing his innocence, and soldiers and crowds who mock him. Here is an irony: The people reject Jesus and choose Barabbas, whose Aramaic name literally means “son of the father.” Opting for the false son while rejecting the true Son of the Father aptly represents the whole sinful human condition.
Jesus’ witness of faith in the utter darkness of the Passion aligns well with today’s reading from the Letter to the Philippians, which extols Christ’s self-emptying unto glory. It is widely believed that Paul is quoting an already known hymn to Christ. Paul’s preface to this hymn is not part of the Lectionary selection. This is unfortunate, because here Paul pleads for us to imitate the Lord. He begins, “If there is any encouragement in Christ, any solace in love, any participation in the Spirit, any compassion and mercy…have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus” (Phil 2:1-5). Then begins the hymn, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.” The hymn goes on to show the cross as Jesus’ ultimate expression of humility and obedience. The result of such self-emptying is that “God greatly exalted him [that]…every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”
Usually this hymn is understood to refer to the Son’s pre-existence and the renunciation of his divinity so as to enter fully the human condition, even unto death. It could, however, be read as highlighting a contrast between Adam and Jesus. Adam, born in the form of God (Gn 1:26-27) wanted to reach out to equality with God by pride and disobedience (Gn 3:5ff), leading to our fall. Jesus, in contrast, displays humility and obedience, leading to his exaltation and our salvation. The most illuminating approach to the passage brings both interpretations together. As both new Adam and pre-existing Son, Jesus emptied himself and embraced Adam’s condition of slavery and mortality in order to free us from both.
If we take seriously Jesus’ radical self-emptying, witness of absolute faith and experience of the cross, then we should rethink the common assumption that Jesus always knew exactly what would happen to him—that he would die for our sins and then rise gloriously triumphant a day and a half later. Of course the post-Easter church puts such foreknowledge on his lips. But if Jesus saw all, then Gethsemane makes less sense, as does his experience on the cross. If he truly and completely emptied himself, as Paul writes, then he had to trust God radically, especially in the darkness. If he saw the script, then Good Friday amounts to a very bad day, knowing he would soon be glorified.
Seeing Jesus in true darkness and radical faith makes the cross fully real. It also guides us in our own times of darkness and loss. Haven’t we also felt lost? Derided by friends or colleagues? Felt abandoned by God? So did the Lord Jesus—and in Jerusalem, no less. This week we walk with him there during his last days.