Holy Week Reflections – Monday: A Crucified God

MONDAY: A Crucified God by Fr Brendan Lovett from his book, ‘It’s Not Over Yet – Christological Reflections on Holy Week’, published by Claretian Publications.

This doctrine of the cross is sheer folly to those on their way to ruin,
but to us who are on the way to salvation it is the power of God. Jews call
for miracles, Greeks look for wisdom; but we proclaim Christ — yes, Christ
nailed to the cross; and though this is a stumbling-block to Jews and folly
to Greeks, yet to those who have heard his call, Jews and Greeks alike, he
is the power of God and the Wisdom of God.
1 Cor. 1:18, 23-24

What is demanded of us is honesty. The world has not changed in two thousand years. Event for event, you can find in our contemporary world perfect parallels’ to every moment in this Gospel story of the Passion. But this is difficult for us to admit.

If there is a typically bourgeois virtue it must be the cult of moderation. The extreme is to be abhorred; it is a matter of unseemly exaggeration. We cannot bear too much reality. The world is to be thought of as a place where comfortable mediocrity rules, where everything is under control and there is nothing to be horrified about, either in ourselves or in our world. This is our necessary lie. What we deny under our veneer of a smoothly reasonable world are the real dimensions of life and history.

Understandably, we project a God who will be compatible with this comforting view of life and history. We think God in our own image and likeness.

By contrast, the Gospel categories are not moderate at all but starkly and fearfully opposed — life and death, luxury and starvation. The cross of Jesus achieves its true stature perceived within a world conceived in this stark fashion. Without such a perception of our world, we cannot do justice to the cross of Jesus. More profoundly, without a willingness to allow our image of God to emerge out of the cross, we will certainly miss the deepest truth of the Gospel.

If we analyze ourselves, we find a tendency to look on the cross with horror out of our presumed moderate world. It is barbaric and we have left all that behind us in the twentieth century.

Part of our unease in Holy Week is our repressed outrage at the barbaric horror that we are being asked to focus on through the cold actuality of the written description of what transpired. The Gospels are unbelievably unsentimental and starkly simple. They do not embroider and they do not exaggerate. We, on the other hand, are habitually repressing something.

We make of the Gospel story something extraordinary, exceptional. But the real message is not simply that this terrible thing happened to Jesus. It is that this is always what happens to real love in the world as we have made it. Many are happy to proclaim the world a bad place. They neglect their complicity in making it that way. We like to assume that we believe in God and Jesus and love but confronted with real love we are threatened and experience it as terrifying demand. When we meet love, we kill love.

And we will only stop doing this when we are seduced by the Beauty that can overcome our fear. We encounter this Beauty in the story of Jesus’ life, passion and death. Rather, we will encounter it there if we stop pretending that our idea of God is not what is at stake in this story, and stop asking why God — the God whom we presume to know independently of the story — did not ‘do something.’ God is the issue: our way to life depends on whether we can reconceive Divine Wisdom, Strength, Love in and through the story of Jesus.

Bishop Taylor (1) tells of a young couple to whom he was called whose two-year old child had just died, a victim of “cot death.” This name is reserved for those deaths in sleep of little children for which no cause can be identified. This is harder to bear than anything else. In an accident, at least we understand how it happened. But there is a meaninglessness involved in the cot death that attacks our deep conviction that life must be meaningful somehow.

He writes of his unwillingness to talk to the couple of God’s inscrutable purposes. In fact, what he told the couple was that the death of their child was as great a tragedy for God as it was for them. How could he say that? The easy — or desperate — invocation of God’s Providence to provide a comforting answer seems so much more orthodox.

What we habitually ignore is the dimension of unavoidable pain and suffering that belongs.to a material universe. We have slowly come to learn over centuries of effort to understand that the only intelligibility to be found in our universe is that of emergent probability. For every successful breakthrough of life there are countless dead-ends. This means that the whole process of emerging life in God’s world is one involving enormous costs. * 

This explains the enormous time range that belongs to the process, fifteen to twenty thousand million years in terms of our current knowledge. The randomness which attaches to the confluence of so many causal factors makes for tragedy. Those who ask why God does not intervene with miracle if God cares do not understand that they are demanding a universe which would then be forever unknowable and humanly unliveable since what they are requesting would involve the elimination of the only intrinsic intelligibility a material universe could have. If God wishes a material universe — and most of us most of the time are happy enough that God does — God must allow the pain and frustration of that universe. If God’s creation is to result in flesh and blood people capable of freely responding to love with love, then God must be “helpless” in the face of tragedies like cot deaths. We have no reason to say that God is less involved in the pain of the tragedy than the parents are. If we take the cross of Jesus seriously as the revelation of God, we have every reason to say the opposite.

Jesus never suggests that he expected everything to go smoothly for him in this world just because he knew the Father loved him. We do not find him asking for things to be rearranged just for his own benefit: the temptation stories indicate his attitude to that. But once, in real fear, he prayed “Father, if it be possible…” only to discover that it was not possible. We read how his realization of this in prayer strengthened him and he was able to carry on. We fear to examine what this might mean, that it was not possible. Like him, we realize that we are thus thrown back on our own responsibility for the world. Our comforting image of omnipotent Deity is shattered. To be human is to be invited to enter into the pain of the world and to take responsibility for minimizing that pain.

Sin in us is when we look at the world with something less than love and find it too terrifying. Our withdrawal in self-protection, saying ‘No’ to life at all kinds of levels, comes from an inchoate feeling that this is a terrible scene to be involved in. The levels of risk and consequent vulnerability, the enormity of evil — we are not quite sure we want to be part of this. If with the tradition we want to say that there is a resolution to our problem in the cross of Jesus, we have to come to see that the only resolution lies in our becoming reconciled to God as God really is; a God whose omnipotence is not to be conceived as the power to change the way the world is in spite of everyone and everything; a God whose power is manifest primarily as the infinite vulnerability of Infinite Love.

Jesus’ prayer was met with silence. No reply. But no reply was possible. Perhaps at least a word of comfort could have been offered? With that we are back in the category of cheap emotions. It would have been meaningless: there is no comforting word conceivable in the context in which Jesus found himself. It would have been a lie. So there is only silence.

Paul does not minimize the scandal. The truth of God that is revealed in the suffering and death of Jesus
– is not God as we think God
– is none of the things in which we take pride
– is none of the things on which we pin our hope
– corresponds to none of the values by which we structure our world. It is, in fact, utter foolishness to our wisdom. What we struggle with this week is a monumental inversion of values, a turning the world upside-down. It goes like this: we, in our resentment at life, have created a crucifying world, a world where any who really love get killed; Jesus, the Power and the Wisdom of the God who is Love, shows us how life is to be loved and how life is to be lived. I do not think that we will ever stop making the crucifying world until we see the face of God in the crucified Jesus. We need to be seduced by the beauty of that Truth. And by the beauty of the human vocation. God suffers God’s universe in love so that there will be a response in love. Only thus can what is most precious to God — a free response to life in love — emerge. Our only meaning lies in being able to say yes to life and the universe has been “waiting,” moving towards our response, for twenty thousand million years.

To enter into the passion and death of Jesus is, then, to begin to discover the nature of God’s involvement in God’s universe and to experience the invitation to share in that involvement. What dissolves our fear in love is the discovery of the truth of the Mystery present at the birth of the galaxies and at the birth of our earth: present with an infinite cherishing deeper than any involvement of suffering that we can imagine. (2) This truth of the Mystery is only available to us if we can read the story of Jesus as God’s story.

Any focus on the passion and death of Jesus which fails to lead people into the truth of the Father is a sad missing of the point. There are other things to be struggled with during this week but none as crucial as this to the life of faith. R. S. Thomas is a Welshman whose poetry over the last few decades has been a moving testimony to the unending struggle in us between faith and doubt. Here are some lines of his:
And in the book I read
God is love — But lifting
my head, I do not find it
so… (3)

…One thing I have asked
Of the disposer of the issues
Of life: that truth should defer
To beauty. It was not granted. (4)

Most of us could easily identify with Thomas’ sentiments. We have certain expectations aroused by the concept of a loving and caring God. We find these expectations contradicted in history. Perhaps we have forgotten the Gospel source of the concept and the experience that gave rise to it in the first place. It is not enough to ‘read in the Book’ the statement ‘God is love’: we must enter into the story to discover just what that might mean. It may be that then, as we discover the truth of the Mystery in history, our expectations will be drastically modified.

At the end of yesterday’s reflection we were challenged to a deeper involvement in the suffering of our world as a needed step for fruitful entry into the Passion story. It now appears that we are being invited to an openness towards God’s involvement in the suffering of our world as an equally necessary step. It may be that progress in the second step makes possible our progress in the first step; that a glimpse of the true wisdom and power of God as this appears in the story of Jesus frees us into the compassion of our human vocation.

Notes:

1 – ‘Weep Not For Me, pp. 11-12.

2 – “Suffering and death are not unrelated to the God of whom Christ is the revelation; God carries in himself a mystery which in the man Jesus is called suffering and death.” F. X. Durwell, Mystery of Christ and the Apostolate. London: Sheed and Ward, 1972, p. 10.

3 – “Which”, Laboratories of the Spirit. London: Macmillan, 1975.

4 – “Petition”, H.M. London: Hart-Davis, 1972.

The drawing is by artist Roland Peter Litzenburger. One of a series of picture meditations before the Liturgy of the Cross on Good Friday

No. 2 Solidarity:

The theme of the one family suggests that of our basic solidarity in the human: not all accept it, not all understand it.

The man on the right, self-preoccupied, isolated, completely unaware of real dependence on the others who carry him and through whom alone he lives;

The couple in the centre, accepted mutual involvement where the question of who is supporting whom cannot be meaningfully raised and all giving is a receiving;

The woman on the left, symbol of all women and of the anonymous majority of the people through the long stretches of human time, carrying the burden of history without comprehension, without acknowledgement from others, but carrying it.

Three lived relationships to the truth of our solidarity in one humanity.