St. Gregory Nazianzus once neatly encapsulated the universal nature of Christ with the profoundly pithy maxim, “What has not been assumed has not been healed.” Put another way, whatever Christ did not become cannot be of use to us. Christ is not simply the greatest man, but the cosmic man. He is the sustaining power of the cosmos, and as He dies, so the cosmos dies and is reborn in Him. For this reason, before my daughters take the Eucharist on Sunday morning, I ask them, “What will happen when you take the Lord’s supper?” to which they respond, “Jesus will come into our hearts and do whatever we do, as long as what we do is good.” I then ask them for a list of things that Jesus will not do with them, and they name a few of their sins.
The idea that Christ is the universal man, the cosmic man, of course has some rather odd implications. After my daughters describe the things which Christ will not do with them, I ask them, “What does Jesus want to do with you?” Their response to this question is a mixture of the sublime and the mundane. “Jesus wants to go to Church. Jesus wants to pray. Jesus wants to play nicely with His sister. Jesus wants to eat cheese with us. Jesus wants to go to school.” The universal Christ has tastes not dissimilar from our own.
While Christian philosophers since St. Augustine (and probably before him) have recognized Christ as the universal teacher, the enlightener of mankind, what has Christ to offer the student? If Christ does not assume the role of the student, then as St. Gregory Nazianzus put it, the role of student is of no use to us. If Christ did not assume the office of a student, no man can profitably be a student.
When considering Christ as a student, our minds invariably return to the mysterious passage where Christ is said to “grow in wisdom and stature,” and while this claim of St. Luke’s might supply a proof text for theologizing Christ as a student, it does little to show us Christ as student. Catholic and Orthodox readers may be depended upon for traditional stories of Christ’s obedience to Mary. However, I believe the most forthright teacher of Christ— at least so far as the Gospels are concerned— is St. John the Baptist. St. John refers to the Pharisees as a “brood of vipers” long before Christ. The Old Testament employs a host of metaphors for Sheol, but it seems that John’s understanding that hell is hot (Luke 3:17) is principally what informs Christ’s description of the “unquenchable fire” (Mark 9:48) of damnation. One might also argue that John’s social ethic (“Let he who has two coats give to him who has none”) is not far from Jesus social ethic, principally expounded in the Sermon on the Mount (“Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you”). The essential work of John, baptism by water, is handed down to Christ, Who completes the work of his teacher through a baptism of fire.
If the good teacher will honor his student as Christ, then the good teacher must become like the teacher of Christ. This is a harrowing task, for the most important thing Christ learns from John the Baptist is how to die. John is executed by a gutless politico who is embarrassed to renege on a festal promise, and so is Christ. Dale Allison notes the myriad similarities in Matthew’s Gospel between the passion of John and the passion of Christ: both are “bound,” both of their executioners fear the people, both are buried by their disciples. While the Eucharist has far-reaching and cosmic significance, Christ hears of John’s head being served on a silver dish well before he says, “Take and eat, this is My body…”
While it is unlikely, in this day and age, that any teacher will be arrested and slaughtered before their students, the good teacher is nonetheless obligated to show his students how to die. The confession of sin and admission of fault is the death of the ego. Humility and silence before the wisdom of the Western Tradition is another kind of death. Christ dignifies the office of student by condescending to the teaching of John. Inasmuch as the teacher is Christ to his students, he shows them how to die, and inasmuch as the student is Christ to the teacher, the teacher shows the students how to die. Either way, the teacher is not merely passing on numbers, words, elements, dates. The teacher performs a complete submission of his earthly wants to heavenly transcendence, and when he is long gone, the student takes his place.