Nicholas II, the murdered Tsar of Russia, died savagely 91 years ago with his wife, son, four daughters and a few family attendants.
Their execution in the cellar of a house on the edge of Siberia was preceded, however, by almost a year of incarcerated isolation. They lived humbly for many months in their palace outside St. Petersburg, a few more months in an isolated, rural city and then finally in the even more remote place of their death. During this forced retreat the Romanov family certainly had much time to think, to reflect on the past and to question the future. A recent author placed these words on the lips of the Tsar’s daughters who, in 1918, were already young women: “Why do we live? Why do we suffer? If only we knew … if only.”
The soul searching of the Romanov daughters, who were very religious, brings to mind the soul searching of Jesus Christ who spent an attentive 40 days sorting out his destiny in the first century. It should be said from the start that Jesus was not going through an identity crisis, trying to sort out who he was, as older adolescents and young adults frequently experience. Jesus knew exactly who he was. He was the Son of God, the second person of the Blessed Trinity, the perfect, eternal image of the Father God himself. The challenge was not his identity but rather how that divine identity, that divine sonship, was to be acted out in human terms.
St. Mark’s account of the temptations of Christ, read this Sunday, is exceedingly brief. Sts. Matthew and Luke have expansive and remarkably similar accounts of Jesus’ wilderness ponderings. Jesus’ dilemma was not, “Who am I?” Jesus’ quandary was “What do I do?” How does the Son of God behave in human terms? How does one render the divine into the human, the eternal into the temporal, the heavenly into the earthly?
The eternal characteristic of the Son of God was complete orientation toward his Father. The Son of God was always obedient, dutiful, respectful, worshipful. The eternal Son never wavered from his Father’s will. Now this obedience had to be lived out on the roads and in the fields and within the homes and at the synagogues of Palestine. This total orientation had to be reflected in the sermons, warnings, healings and roaming of Jesus’ public life. As Sts. Matthew and Luke narrate, Jesus’ temptations zeroed right in on his divine sonship. “If you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread ... If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. …”
In the wilderness, Jesus realizes that his divine sonship will not be well served by changing stones into bread. That would show lack of confidence in his Father. Jesus also senses that casting himself down from the temple to be rescued by angels would be a false move. That would presume too much on God’s providence. And certainly worshipping Satan was out of the question for the dutiful Son. Jesus’ 40 days of wilderness contemplation allows him to realize that his divine sonship, lived without flaw for all eternity, must continue to be lived out in time through demonstrations of trust, confidence, obedience, submission and fidelity. “Not my will but thine be done,” spoken at Gethsemane, had actually been lived out since Bethlehem. “Thy will be done,” prayed instructively for the disciples, had been powerfully taught by Jesus’ venturing forth from his Nazareth home to preach the Gospel, by his courage in the face of Jewish opposition, by his audacity at the questioning of Pilate. And, of course, the cross was Jesus’ greatest act of sonship, his final, human demonstration of total orientation toward the Father. Truly, Christ’s sonship, whether in heaven or on earth, was written in words of obedience.
The Romanov daughters had plenty of time to ponder their lot in life. Let’s hope their strong Orthodox faith sustained them through their ghastly ordeal. Jesus had all eternity to contemplate his role in God’s plan. Christ’s successful resistance to Satan’s attempt to subvert his role powerfully illustrates that the Savior knew who he was and knew what was expected of him in human terms.