The Prayer of Jesus: Jesus’ Will and the Will of the Father – Pope Benedict XVI

January 23, 2012

Giovanni Bellini, Le Christ Benissant, 1465 – 1470, at the Louvre in Paris

What does this mean? What is “my” will as opposed to “your” will? Who is speaking to whom? Is it the Son addressing the Father? Or the man Jesus addressing the triune God? Nowhere else in sacred Scripture do we gain t deep an insight into the inner mystery of Jesus as in the laver on the Mount of Olives. So it is no coincidence it the early Church’s efforts to arrive at an understand of the figure of Jesus Christ took their final shape as a result of faith-filled reflection on his prayer on the Mount of Olives.

At this point we should undertake a rapid overview of the early Church’s Christology, in order to grasp its understanding of the interrelation between the divine will and the human will in the figure of Jesus Christ. The Council of Nicea (325) had clarified the Christian concept of God. The three persons — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — are one, in the one “substance” of God. More than a century later, the Council of Chalcedon (451) sought to articulate the relation between divinity and humanity in Jesus Christ by adopting the formula that the one person of the Son of God embraces and bears the two natures — human and divine — “without confusion and without separation”.

Thus the infinite difference between God and man, between Creator and creature is preserved: humanity remains humanity, divinity remains divinity. Jesus’ humanity is neither absorbed nor reduced by his divinity. It exists in its fullness, while subsisting in the divine person of the Logos. At the same time, in the continuing distinction of natures, the expression “one person” conveys the radical unity that God in Christ has entered into with man. The formula of Pope Leo the Great — two natures, one person — expresses an insight that transcended by fit the historical moment, and for that reason it was enthusiastically accepted by the Council Fathers.

Yet it was ahead of its time: its concrete meaning had not yet been fully set forth. What is meant by “nature”? But more importantly, what is meant by “person”? Since this was by no means clear, many bishops after Chalcedon said that they would rather think like fishermen than like Aristotle. The formula remained obscure. Therefore the reception of Chalcedon was an extremely complex process, and fierce battles were fought over it.

In the end it led to division: only the Churches of Rome and Byzantium definitively accepted the Council and its formula. Alexandria in Egypt preferred to remain with the formula of “one divinized nature” (monophysitism); while farther east, Syria remained skeptical about the notion of one person, as it appeared to . compromise Jesus’ true humanity (Nestorianism). It was not simply ideas that were at issue here: more significantly, contrasting forms of devotion burdened the debate with the weight of religious sensibilities, rendering it insoluble.

The Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon continues to indicate, to the Church of all ages, the necessary pathway into the mystery of Jesus Christ. That said, it has t be appropriated anew in the context of contemporary thought, since the concepts of “nature” and “person” have acquired quite different meanings from those they had at the time. This task of reappropriation must go hand to hand with ecumenical dialogue with the pre-Chalcedonian Churches, so that our lost unity may be regained in the core of our faith — in our confession of the God who became man in Jesus Christ.

The great battle that was fought after Chalcedon, especially in the Byzantine East, was essentially concerned with the question: If there is only one divine person in Jesus, embracing both natures, then what is the status of his human nature? If it subsists within the one divine person, can it be said to have any real, specific existence in itself? Must it not inevitably be absorbed by the divine, at least at its highest point, the will?

This leads us to the last of the great Christological heresies, known as ” monotheletism”. There can be only one will within the unity of a person, its adherents maintained; a person with two wills would be schizophrenic: ultimately it is in the will that a person manifests himself, and where there is only one person, then ultimately there can be only one will. Yet an objection comes to mind: What kind of man has no human will? Is a man without a will really a man? Did God in Jesus truly become man, if this man had no will?

The great Byzantine theologian Maximus the Confessor (d. 662) formulated an answer to this question by struggling to understand Jesus’ prayer on the Mount of Olives. Maximus is first and foremost a determined opponent of monotheletism: Jesus’ human nature is not amputated through union with the Logos; it remains complete. And the will is part of human nature. This irreducible duality of human and divine willing in Jesus must not, however, be understood to imply the schizophrenia of a dual personality.

Nature and person must be seen in the mode of existence proper to each. In other words: in Jesus the “natural will” of the human nature is present, but there is only one “personal will”, which draws the “natural will” into itself. And this is possible without annihilating the specifically human element, because the human will, as created by God, is ordered to the divine will. In becoming attuned to the divine will. it experiences its fulfillment, not its annihilation.

Maximus says in this regard that the human will, by virtue of creation tends toward synergy (working together) with the divine will, but that through sin, opposition takes the place of synergy: man, whose will attains fulfillment through becoming attuned to God’s will, now has the sense that his freedom is compromised by God’s will. He regards consenting to God’s will, not as his opportunity to become fully himself, but as a threat to his freedom against which he rebels.

The drama of the Mount of Olives lies in the fact that Jesus draws man’s natural will away from opposition and back toward synergy, and in so doing he restores man’s true greatness. In Jesus’ natural human will, the sum total of human nature’s resistance to God is, as it were, present within Jesus himself. The obstinacy of us all, the whole of our opposition to God is present, and in his struggle, Jesus elevates our recalcitrant nature to become its real self.

Christoph Schonborn says in this regard that “the transition between the two wills from opposition to union is accomplished through the sacrifice of obedience. In the agony of Gethsemane, this transition occurs” (God’s Human Face, pp. 126-27). Thus the prayer “not my will, but yours” (Luke 22:42) is truly the Son’s prayer to the Father, through which the natural human will is completely subsumed into the “I” of the Son. Indeed, the Son’s whole being is expressed in the “not I, but you” — in the total self-abandonment of the “I” to the “you” of God the Father. This same “I” has subsumed and transformed humanity’s resistance, so that we are all now present within the Son’s obedience; we are all drawn into sonship.

This brings us to one final point regarding Jesus’ prayer, to its actual interpretative key, namely, the form of address: “Abba, Father” (Mk 14:36). In 1966 Joachim Jeremias wrote an important article about the use of this term in Jesus’ prayer, from which I should like to quote two essential insights: “Whereas there is not a single instance of God being addressed as Abba in the literature of Jewish prayer, Jesus always addressed him in this way (with the exception of the cry from the Cross, Mark 15:34 and parallel passages). So we have here a quite unmistakable characteristic of the ipsissima vox Jesu (Abba, p. 5).

Moreover, Jeremias shows that this word Abba belongs to the language of children — that it is the way a child addresses his father within the family. “To the Jewish mind it would have been disrespectful and therefore inconceivable to address God with this familiar word. For Jesus to venture to take this step was something new and unheard of. He spoke to God like a child to his father … Jesus’ use of Abba in addressing God reveals the heart of his relationship with God” (p. 62). It is therefore quite mistaken on the part of some theologians to suggest that the man Jesus was addressing the Trinitarian God in the prayer on the Mount of Olives. No, it is the Son speaking here, having subsumed the fullness of man’s will into himself and transformed it into the will of the Son.

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