And when he was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him. ~Hebrews 5:9
“Made perfect” It’s an odd expression to assign to our Lord, isn’t it? To be made perfect suggests that Christ was not perfect, was imperfect. Could this be? Some would like to argue that Christ, with respect to his character and virtues, was imperfect. Like the flawed heroes who have become more and more commonplace and popular in our imagination, an imperfect Christ is more relatable, so goes the argument. This line of reasoning, though, runs into serious dilemmas. If Christ’s humanity is the vehicle that achieves our own perfection, how is Christ’s own humanity perfected? Do we need then “another Christ” to serve as the perfector of what is lacking in Christ? Clearly that is absurd. When we are sick with a disease, we don’t want another invalid to empathize with us, we want a doctor who can heal us. So it must be with Christ.
So what does it mean when Christ is described as having been “made perfect?” On the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, Pope Benedict XVI proposed the following text that helps unlock for us the meaning of this expression:
Let us return to the words of the Letter to the Hebrews which say: “Although he was a Son he learned obedience through what he suffered”. Christ’s priesthood entailed suffering. Jesus truly suffered and did so for our sake. He was the Son and did not need to learn obedience but we do, we did need to and we always will. Therefore the Son took upon himself our humanity and for our sake he let himself be “taught” obedience in the crucible of suffering, he let himself be transformed by it like the grain of wheat that has to die in the earth in order to bear fruit. By means of this process Jesus was “made perfect” in Greek, teleiotheis. We must pause to reflect on this term because it is very important. It indicates the fulfilment of a journey, that is, the very journey and transformation of the Son of God through suffering, through his painful Passion. It is through this transformation that Jesus Christ became the “high priest” and can save all who entrust themselves to him. The term teleiotheis, correctly translated by the words “made perfect”, belongs to a verbal root which, in the Greek version of the Pentateuch, that is, the first five Books of the Bible, is always used to mean the consecration of the ancient priests. This discovery is very valuable because it tells us that for Jesus the Passion was like a priestly consecration. He was not a priest according to the Law but became one existentially in his Pasch of Passion, death and Resurrection: he gave himself in expiation and the Father, exalting him above every creature, made him the universal Mediator of salvation.
Passiontide begins today. The liturgical texts and rites point with ever increasing intensity to the life-giving celebration of the Paschal Triduum. Accompanying and passing over with our Lord sacramentally in this journey, we seek to be “made perfect” like him too. Your suffering united to Christ’s provides you with fitting rubrics for exercising your baptismal priesthood, consecrated in Jesus Christ and forming with him one, fragrant oblation to the Father.
Fr. Richard Hinkley