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The Trinity and Humiliation

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Sarah Coakley

Those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, ‘You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.’ So also the chief priests and scribes and elders mocked him, saying, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him; for he said “I am the Son of God”.’ (Matthew 27:39-43)

Jesus, in his own humiliation, and in apparent displacement even from his own divine power, shows us the great incarnational truth of being “alienated from nothing human” – not just in the apparent meaninglessness of the cross itself, but in his complete human powerlessness, as he bears the taunts of crowd.

Yet this bathos is, oddly, already the hinge into veiled new meaning, the beginning of the regeneration of hope. Since Jesus’s sharing of humiliation is the beginning of the reconstitution of humus, of Adam, his identification with it, his passionate powerlessness in it, is already a new medicine in the pharmacy of renewal. But amid the darkness of Good Friday, we cannot see that yet.

The greatest medieval theologians struggled with how to give a convincing account of the logic of the cross – of how, exactly, it could be that Jesus’s sharing of our humiliation, our essential earthliness, could be explained satisfactorily if he was also God, and how such a condescension could effect our own liberation from sin and death. The great problem here is that, even now, we tend to think that the choices are between a sort of Superman who merely feigns suffering, and an all-too-human Jesus who lurches towards complete powerlessness, such that his divinity is eclipsed altogether. But to think thus is to create a false choice, a false disjunction. It is so hard to wrap our minds around the thought that the intersection of the divine and the human in Christ signals neither an anaesthetizing of Jesus’s human pain nor any loss of divine potency, but an expression of that potency precisely in the pain.

Thomas Aquinas, reflecting in the thirteenth century on the pains of the passion, both physical and psychic, expresses the beautiful thought that Christ the Son, being nothing less than the second person of the Trinity, must actually feel pain and humiliation more intensely than the rest of us, not less, precisely because He is God. Aquinas’s is a wonderful reflection on the philosophical implications of the incarnation in the “hypostatic union” of natures: the complete knowledge, closer than kissing, that God the Son has of our human humiliation, qua God; the terrible knowledge he has of it, qua man.

So instead of a God who has to be pleased and placated, in some system of rewards and punishments, we have the God of complete identification with the worst that human sin can throw at us. Already, then, a precious new tiny thread of meaning emerges – one that passes me beyond my control and into God’s control. The possibility is opened that in the meaning beyond meaning that is the cross, human humiliation is actually a signal of a divine exchange beyond all human calculation.