Words that stick: 'Your will be done'

"Christ on the Mount of Olives" (1511) by Albrecht Dürer (Newscom/akg-images)
"Christ on the Mount of Olives" (1511) by Albrecht Dürer (Newscom/akg-images)

by Melissa Musick Nussbaum

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If I were preaching this Palm Sunday, I'd begin with the Our Father. I'd begin with Jesus telling his disciples, "This is how you are to pray" (Matthew 6:9). And then I'd move to the words that should catch fire and swallow me in flames:

Your kingdom come,
Your will be done,
On earth as in heaven (Matthew 6:10).

I honestly never had much trouble with the "kingdom come" part. Baptized as an infant on a spring morning in Texas when Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower was in the White House and all the kingdoms of the earth -- thanks in no small part to him, our general and our president -- belonged to us, I moved effortlessly into understanding myself to be part of the heavenly kingdom, too. It was much later that I began to wonder how much I would even like living in the kingdom, not to mention whether I would be counted as one of its number.

But "Your will be done." From my youth those words stuck in my heart, if not my throat. I knew, know, them to be a lie. I am content for God's will to be done only in the lives of those whose lives don't really matter to me. Unless, of course, God's will matches up with mine -- and in that precise order -- in which case, great, wonderful. Let's get that divine will going!

If I were preaching, I would point out that the rabbi, Jesus, is telling his disciples what to do, how to pray. He's like a teacher here, telling the students how to read a scale and sound the notes. He's like a mother here, teaching her children how to put their feet on the bike pedals and go. He's like a rabbi, teaching his students the language and postures they will need to delve into mystery. It's what teachers, parents, rabbis do: Teach the disciples in their care.

Those of us who have been entrusted with this task know how often we have taught or counseled or demanded what we ourselves have been unable to do.

I would point out that we are comfortable with Jesus the rabbi, teaching his disciples, and us, how to pray. But Mark's Gospel forces us to watch Jesus do what he teaches, act on what he has told others to do. It is the hardest test any teacher, any parent, any rabbi or pastor will face. "This is how you are to pray."

[Jesus] began to be troubled and distressed. Then he said to them, "My soul is sorrowful even to death. Remain here and keep watch." He advanced a little and fell to the ground and prayed that if it were possible the hour might pass by him; he said, "Abba, Father, all things are possible to you. Take this cup away from me, but not what I will but what you will" (Mark 14:33-36).

"Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven."

If I were preaching, I would speak of Christmas, which we keep, rightly, as the feast of the Incarnation. God was carried in the womb of a woman, born from a woman's womb, fed at a woman's breast. But this day, Palm Sunday, when Holy Week begins its solemn unfolding, seems to me a kind of further revelation, or completion, of the Incarnation.

Jesus is born as we all are born, small and helpless, carried and fed (or not), as the adults around us choose. But Jesus suffers and dies in full awareness of his plight and of the consequences of faithfulness to the Father's will. He chooses.

In his choice, in his choices, he reveals not just humanity, but full humanity, the humanity God breathed into the very first of us. The full humanity the very first of us spat out, crying with Milton's archfiend, "To be weak is miserable," and then, later, "Better to reign in hell, than serve in heav'n."

It is miserable to be weak, and Jesus will enter into weakness and dwell there: seized, bound, beaten, belittled, hung and pierced. Jesus will know the weakness of human suffering and death. He will put aside all crowns, whether of earth or heaven or hell, and do as he teaches his own. It is not that Jesus of Nazareth has no will, for, without it, he wouldn't be human. It is that Jesus of Nazareth puts his will, as he puts his flesh, before the Father and into the Father's hands.

If I were preaching, I would suggest that it is not the Father who desires shed blood. That hunger is ours, we who would not be weak, we who would not serve. Jesus is not handing himself over to the Father to be killed, but to men and women who call, in every land and in every age, for blood. But he is handing over to the Father his own human will to avoid or retaliate or hate. Jesus hands himself over to be crucified, and he will look on those who hurt him and on those who suffer with him and on those who desert him with eyes and heart and mind that are one with the Father.

He will be abandoned, but he will not abandon others.

"Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43).

When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple there whom he loved, he said to his mother, "Woman, behold your son."

And he said to the disciple, "Behold your mother" (John 19:26-27).

If I were preaching, I would say I have learned that to be in God's will is, moment by moment, to be in, and with, God. It is to be in communion, to breathe, in and out, with the One whose breath fills me, animates me and gives me life.

I want to think of God's will as a circumstance: here or there, now or then, well or ill. But I am coming, slowly, so slowly, to know it as a relationship that endures even as circumstances change. It is, as St. John of the Cross prayed, to be given:

...the truths which are veiled by the doctrines and articles of faith, which are masked by the pious words of sermons and books. Let my eyes penetrate the veil, and tear off the mask, that I can see your truth face to face.

"Your will be done," is a plea to tear off the mask, all the masks, and see God's truth face to face, "on earth, as it is in heaven."

[Melissa Musick Nussbaum also writes at thecatholiccatalogue.com.]

A version of this story appeared in the March 27-April 9, 2015 print issue under the headline: Words that stick: 'Your will be done'.

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