who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
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. (Philippians 2:5-8)
The Epistle reading from yesterday came from the letter to the Philippians. In this section, Paul is encouraging the young believers to imitate Christ by taking on his humility. In the past few weeks I've been pondering what it meant for Jesus to humble himself, to take on the limitations of humanity, and live a life of obedience to his heavenly Father. Could it be that his greatest temptation (and maybe his only temptation) was to take back up what he willingly laid down - his power, knowledge, honor - and stay true to the course of living a life of love as a human, even if it led to a cross?
Given those ramblings, imagine my delight when I came across this poem yesterday, posted by my friend Robin Bates over at Better Living Through Beowulf. In Salvator Mundi: Via Crucis, Latin for Savior of the World, through the Cross , Levertov, like me, is busy wondering. She starts by trying to imagine the face of Jesus, and asks if he might indeed have looked like one of Rembrandt's renderings. How would that face have changed during the events that make up Holy Week? she asks herself. How would the inevitable grimace have affected that "dark, still-young, very intelligent face?"
In the poem, Levertov shows us a Jesus who is truly human. In his willingness to not just appear as a human (see Paul's hymn above) but to actually become a human, Jesus subjects himself to the humiliation of dread, experiencing that horrible feeling we've all felt in the pit of our stomach that tells us we're out of our depths. The writer to the Hebrews says that Jesus offered "prayers and petition and fervent cries" as he asked that the cup of suffering be taken from him.
Although Levertov can envision the face of Jesus in his suffering, she admits that the painters brush can never show the battle that was raging inside the heart and mind of the young Messiah. The greatest artists might show us Christ in Gethsemane or struggling under the cross as he makes his way toward Golgotha, but they cannot show us the pure longing of the soul to "cease to be." As great as the torture, betrayal or pain of death might have pressed upon the Savior, "[i]ncarnation's greatest weight" is "this sickened desire to renege," to give up, give in.
Here is where the poem takes a surprising turn. For Jesus is not only fully human. The next lines reveal that he is Himself God, fully divine. The plan that he is tempted to renege on was formed and fashioned not by another agent, but by the Godhead itself. Echoing Paul's hymn, where we are told it was the decision of the pre-incarnate Christ to lay aside all of the privileges and rights of being part of the Trinity to come to earth, Levertov shows Jesus being tempted "to step back from what He, Who was God, had promised Himself, and had entered time and flesh to enact." God certainly knew that to enact life would be to embrace death. And when it finally comes to that point, being really human includes wishing it could happen a different way.
For Jesus to know what it's like to be human, the temptation to give up had to be real. The "sublime acceptance" has to include a moment of indecision, where heaven waits in anticipation for Jesus to model what we are called to live out. Jesus passes the test. As he says "yes," he becomes, as Paul says, "obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross." Committing to the purpose of his life, Jesus embraces the cross, becoming the Salvador Mundi, and offering each of us the gift of life.
Salvator Mundi: Via Crucis
By Denise Levertov
Maybe He looked indeed
much as Rembrandt envisioned Him
in those small heads that seem in fact
portraits of more than a model.
A dark, still young, very intelligent face,
A soul-mirror gaze of deep understanding, unjudging.
That face, in extremis, would have clenched its teeth
In a grimace not shown in even the great crucifixions.
The burden of humanness (I begin to see) exacted from Him
That He taste also the humiliation of dread,
cold sweat of wanting to let the whole thing go,
like any mortal hero out of his depth,
like anyone who has taken herself back.
The painters, even the greatest, don’t show how,
in the midnight Garden,
or staggering uphill under the weight of the Cross,
He went through with even the human longing
to simply cease, to not be.
Not torture of body,
not the hideous betrayals humans commit
nor the faithless weakness of friends, and surely
not the anticipation of death (not then, in agony’s grip)
was Incarnation’s heaviest weight,
but this sickened desire to renege,
to step back from what He, Who was God,
had promised Himself, and had entered
time and flesh to enact.
to be absolute, had to have welled
up from those depths where purpose
Drifted for mortal moments.