< December 29, 2013 >

Commentary on Hebrews 2:10-18

 

This reading from Hebrews for the first Sunday after Christmas continues to celebrate the festival of the Incarnation, the adventus/katabasis of God in the human Jesus. 

This reading from Hebrews for the first Sunday after Christmas continues to celebrate the festival of the Incarnation, the adventus/katabasis of God in the human Jesus. The highly poetic and densely packed language of the text may cloak its stunning revelations about (a) who the Son is, (b) what God has done through this intimate involvement with the very stuff of creation, and (c) why it was necessary. All this is bracketed by the meditation on the suffering of Jesus introduced in verse 10 and returned to in verse 18. A few words about each of these points are in order.

Who the Son is

This reading follows extended praise of the exalted Son that takes up much of chapter one of Hebrews. The Son is the appointed heir of all things (1:2), through whom the world was created (1:2), the exact imprint of God’s very being (1:3), who sits at the right hand of God (1:13), enthroned above the angels (1:6), and so on. The wording of 2:10 refers back to this panegyric (“God, for whom and through whom all things exist”) yet then makes a stunning claim.

It is congruent with God’s character (“it was fitting”) that Jesus -- the exact imprint of divine being -- is made “perfect/complete” through “suffering.” God, who by definition transcends everything mutable, changeable, and temporal, is revealed in the suffering, death, and resurrection of the man Jesus. This is the central irony of the festival of the Incarnation -- that the transcendent God is definitively revealed only in human vulnerability.

God is known as a baby born to peasants in Judea of the first century CE, who was “flesh and blood”(2:14), “like his brothers and sisters in every respect” (2:17). He was crushed by the powers that be (as many are), yet through that death not only revealed the heart of God as merciful and faithful (2:17) but (a) expiated the very Sin that killed him (2:17) while he (b) destroyed the power of death (2:14).

These are, of course, outrageously extravagant claims. Though Hebrews shares this scandalous gospel kerygma with the rest of the NT (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:20), Hebrews thinks it through thoroughly by means of its unique “high priest” Christology introduced first at 2:17 (cf. 1:3b), an image that has its genesis in a christological reading of Psalm 110:4 (explicitly introduced at 5:6).

What God Has Done

The intent of the Incarnation, Hebrews says, is to bring “many children to glory” (2:10). “Glory” (doxa) has different referents in the NT. It can refer to the “honor” that those in Christ have before God, though they may be despised by the world at large -- clearly the situation for the first recipients of this letter (10:32-34). “Glory” can also refer to the presence/kavod of God. The “glorified” Christ, then, is the one who exists in the presence of God.

In this way of thinking, the intent of the Christ event is to bring “many” into the very presence of God, a process “completed” only by means of death. Jesus is the pioneer here (2:10), charting out the path through death (2:14-15) and making it possible for others to follow. But in Hebrews, as in much of the NT, that which lies ahead (here specifically the glorification of the faithful in the very presence of Christ) is not only a distant hope but also a present reality. It is an eschatological process “already” inaugurated though “not yet” completed.

In Hebrews, the present gift of the “real presence” of Christ is less a “cultic” sacramental reality than an invitation to enter into the service of the world in need of healing. The great appeal at the end of Hebrews reads, “Let us then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured (13:13).” Heaven is experienced proleptically in the service of neighbor. “Santification” in Hebrews, then, is not setting the “holy” apart from that which is “profane,” but eliminating the boundary line between the two notions.

The Son, after all, left the very presence/glory of God to sanctify, as high priest, the world through the most “profane” spectacle of humiliation the Romans could devise -- crucifixion. One might indeed ask, “What is ‘profane’ after the cross?” Christmas celebrates this lifting up (anabasis) of all things into the very presence of God by means of the descent of God in Christ (katabasis), a kenosis that brings many “children to glory.” 

Why It Was Necessary

From a post-Darwin perspective, death is perceived as part of the natural order of things. This is not the perspective of the New Testament. Death is a problem, as is Sin. Neither is intended by God in any simple way. Hebrews does not speculate on the origins of either Sin or Death, though it personifies “the one who has the power of death” as “the devil” (2:14). Note that not only is “death” problematic -- in that it is the supposed end of life -- but that the “fear of death” (2:15) is more so. That is because the fear of death ironically causes one to turn one’s back on life and the creator of life -- God.

Thus from the perspective of Hebrews, physical death is less a threat than spiritual death. Spiritual death might be paraphrased in modern terms as an immobilizing  “self-absorption” when one is curved in upon oneself so that the needs of the neighbor are ignored. In contradistinction to so being “held in slavery” (2:15), the pioneer has revealed that “merciful and faithful service of God” (2:17) is lived out by reaching out to those in need, which includes those so self-absorbed that their Sin, as well as their spiritual death, is invisible to them. Christmas and the light it brings to those living in the midst of darkness, even in its secular dress, can illuminate the way “outside the camp” of such fear. This is forever epitomized by the transformation of Scrooge in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Suffering

One final word about suffering is appropriate. Hebrews is written to a congregation that has suffered much (10:32-34) because of its confession of Christ within a culture hostile to it. The suffering it is experiencing, then, is not something that is random but comes as a direct response to its public discipleship. It is the suffering of persecution. This passage, which begins and ends by lifting up the suffering of Christ as “fitting,” does not intend to suggest that all suffering (or violence) is to be absorbed by the Christian on the model of Christ.

In fact, the community sought to eliminate the suffering of others where it could (13:1-3). Rather, in the specific situation of persecution, Hebrews proclaims that “death” is not the last word. As Christ “trusted” (2:13) the promises of God, so too might those who find themselves brought to “the time of trial” cling to the knowledge that in Christ God had triumphed over death. As Paul notes, after Christ, death no longer has the power to separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:37-38), a love that even now, though the gospel of the resurrected one, is refashioning the world in God’s own image through the new life given to the Body of Christ.