Our curiosity is piqued when we are told that someone has the “inside story.” In Washington, DC, the famous Georgetown University has a School of Foreign Affairs. In the autumn semester of 2005, I taught a course there on papal diplomacy. I remember one student saying to me that he took my course to find out all the dirt I had on the Vatican! He was disappointed, although over recent years the whole world has come to know of the Vatican’s problems!
I wonder what kind of headlines would have reported the dirt, the final fall from grace of Jesus of Nazareth. “Carpenter finally nailed”; “Fake messiah exposed”? No doubt many thought they had scooped the inside story when Jesus confessed he was the Son of God. So that was the crazy illusion he was hiding during his public life! Blasphemer! Impostor! Crucify him!
But the real inside story of Christ’s claims and of the high-sounding language he uses to foretell his crucifixion in today’s Gospel is given to us in the short reading we just heard from the Letter to the Hebrews. It is short – but dense and intense. And it reveals what Jesus was really doing and experiencing on the inside during his earthly days. Let’s hear it again:
“During his life on earth, Christ offered up prayer and entreaty, aloud and in silent tears, to the one who had the power to save him out of death, and he submitted so humbly that his prayer was heard. Although he was Son, he learnt to obey through suffering; but having been made perfect, he became for all who obey him the source of eternal salvation.”
The first thing is that he learnt – yes, that’s right – learnt how to obey the Father. So, God can learn things, too? Not as God, no, but as the man who was God, yes. Jesus was truly man and every human being must, in the end, learn to obey God. Learning is not a one-off thing, nor is obedience. They last a lifetime. Why did he have to learn obedience? Because man and woman had fallen into disobedience to God. Jesus inherited our fallen nature which had become constitutively disobedient, rebellious, self-willed. Jesus came to redeem it not by magic but by the hard work of freely and humbly conforming his humanity to the will of God.
The second thing is that the means by which he learnt obedience was suffering. Why suffering? Suffering in the world is the result of disobedience. Suffering is not just pain, but the awareness that pain is wrong, is not right, is out of order. All animals experience pain, but only the human being experiences pain as suffering. Suffering is experienced as unjust, as a violation of our dignity. The existence of suffering in the world, especially innocent suffering, is one of the greatest joys of Satan. But Jesus, by entering into full solidarity with us, with our fallen humanity, necessarily takes on our suffering. As we will hear on Good Friday, “ours were the sorrows he carried, ours the sufferings he bore.” It is his suffering, physical, psychological, moral and spiritual, which painfully perfects his obedience to the Father. In it and through it his love for us as God also becomes his love for us as brother. Our disobedience traced the path of suffering away from God. The obedience of Jesus, true man and brother to us, traced the path of suffering back to God.
The third thing is that Christ’s suffering was real, not fake. His divinity did not shield his humanity from the bitter experience of every man who suffers. On the contrary, knowing that he was free from sin made him experience all the more vividly the absurdity of innocent suffering. And so, like any believing man, “he offered up prayer and entreaty, aloud and in silent tears” to God. No-one’s tears were truer than his; no-one’s cries and sobs were as deep and heartfelt as his. For not only did he endure the awareness of his own suffering, but he also perceived with utter clarity the depth of suffering of every human being. And so he cried aloud with all his strength to the “one who had the power to save him out of death” for he knew that suffering could only be cleansed out of humanity by death.
The fourth thing is, then, the reality of his death. Fully aware that he was carrying the sin of all human disobedience as well as the burden of all human suffering, he consciously and deliberately walks the path of obedience to the end. Those loud cries which expressed his prayer to be delivered out of death after he had died were nothing in comparison with the loud cry he gave on the Cross as he actually died. For, in that cry, he not only cast out the sin, suffering and death of humanity, but also performed the consummate act of obedient love to the Father and of brotherly love to us. Having submitted so humbly to the Father, his prayer was heard. In the act of death his obedience was perfected and his love was perfected. Having been made perfect, he became for all who now obey him the source of eternal salvation.
That is the inside story of the Grain of Wheat that fell to the ground and died. Only those on the inside, that is, only those who truly believe in Him and obey Him in their own path of obedience and suffering and love, can ever really understand it. For there is not one of us who does not have his or her own inside story of suffering. What we must always remember is that Jesus has been there, is still there and can be part of our story if we humbly surrender our suffering to him in obedient love. Should we not do everything to avoid and heal suffering of every kind? Indeed, we must, with all our strength and wit and will, and Christ will help us do it. But there will always be suffering which neither medicine nor therapy can reach, but only Jesus. What is that suffering? It is death. Only Jesus can cure death. If we let him, he will transform our path of suffering into a path of eternal salvation.