It may sound paradoxical, but the fact that the cross of Jesus uncovers for us the mystery of iniquity is itself the demonstration that the basis of our hope is present in the cross. There was infinitely more happening on the rise of ground outside Jerusalem than the revelation of evil. The revelation of evil is only possible for us because of this “more” that is happening. There is a deeper truth to the Cross than that of our redemption and it is this deeper truth which makes it our redemption.
Isaiah, in the quotation above, typifies our spontaneities, our pre-occupation with guilt in place of a concern for life itself. When the angel dismisses his self-preoccupation, he is freed for life and immediately responds to the divine concern: “Send me.” And then he is warned that it is going to be a hard job getting through to people who cannot see or hear what it is that makes for our peace and life. In fact, no message short of the lived truth, the Word made flesh, can get behind our elaborate defences against life. Jesus, our Source of Life, lives the message which undermines our defences, the message which culminates in Lk. 23-34, “Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing.”
It is true that Jesus was judicially murdered, killed by the leaders of the religious and civil establishments who were responding to the crowd. But it is also true that it was the way this man was living — insisted on living, in God’s name — that provoked such murderous response. Jesus died because he was faithful to the life that God is bringing to the world. It is on that life we need to concentrate to discover hope in the cross of Jesus. He died because of the truth of God-for-us. He died because of fidelity to the kingdom of God, the future God is bringing to this world. And it was the way he died — loving us who are haters of life and of sheer humanity — that revealed once and for all the truth of God for – us. This truth was the Good News for Jesus. It is on this truth above all that we must keep our eyes fixed throughout Holy Week.
A later oversimplification summarizes all this as obedience to the will of the Father and concludes that Jesus died because the Father willed it. But the Father did not send Jesus into this world to die: the Father sent Jesus to be a loving human being, to live to the full. In the world as we have shaped it, this meant he would be crucified. What happened to him is what happens to love incarnate in our world. But there is no future in concentrating on what we did; the Good News centres exclusively on what the creative power of Love does. The worst part of the oversimplification is the way in which it obscures the heart of the Good News as Jesus lived it: God’s passionate “No” to all human misery and pain.
I am suggesting that fruitful reflection on the passion and death of Jesus never dissociates it from the context of his life and of what was central to his life. All of life, its heart-wrenching pains as well as its excess of joy, was eucharist to the scandalous faith of this man. He poured himself out on all of life in ecstatic response to the God who was coming to embrace human concern in infinite compassion. In the light of the Dawn that is coming to us from on high, no fear of anything in life or death controlled him. And those who were open even a little to the infectious faith of this man discovered that it was impossible to be sad in the presence of Jesus. (1) This is the background to the tradition of festive meals wherever he went.
Under the spell of this Kingdom-intoxicated man, people came alive to the desire that they had long ago crucified within themselves — the desire to pour themselves out on life in love. It had *been the first casualty of their attempt to secure themselves against human vulnerability. Now, with the Source of the universe itself as their security, it could re-emerge. At least as long as Jesus was around to inspire them.
But to receive your security from the sheer gift of the Kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus meant letting go of any other source of security. It meant an end to dominative and exploitative uses of power, a radical end to injustice. The Good News is broken to the poor, only to the poor. (2) People are saved in so far as they are assimilated to the poor. To receive the pure gift and to live the pure gratuity of the gift is to abandon all other attempts to secure ourselves at the expense of our fellow women and men. Concretely, this means distancing ourselves from the poor-generating structures of injustice and living out our lives in solidarity with the struggle of the poor for life.
I stress the above because of a fear expressed by John Taylor. He doubts if the Church is ready to throw itself into the struggle for justice grounded in love and, in consequence, anticipates that any comment on the demands of justice — even the statement that the historical struggles against injustice cannot anticipate simple victory this side of Kingdom Come — will be used in escapist fashion to justify present apathy. His sound conclusion is that, despite such danger, the truth of Christ is not negotiable. My own concern is not primarily with the delay of the kingdom, the length of the struggle for justice, but with the primacy of love in the struggle. My peculiar fear is that what is most distinctive about the manner of life of Jesus will be rejected as weakening the struggle of oppressed people. (3) If this were to happen, the liberating truth of the God of Jesus would no longer be consciously present to people in their struggles.
And what is unavoidably and scandalously the case in the praxis of Jesus is the overthrow of a presumption clearly operative even in the action of John the Baptist: first repentance, then communion. For Jesus, proffering communion to all is true proclamation of the Kingdom of God. This overthrow is clearest in the pervasive tradition of the eating habits of Jesus, the record of those with whom he habitually ate. He ate with sinners.
Israel had no problem with forgiveness of sin: well, no more than Christians seem to have. There was a welcome for the repentant sinner. There would have been no scandal if Jesus ate with people who were repentant. A repentant sinner is not a sinner. (4) Jesus is said to have eaten with sinners.
What drove him to this was the truth of the God of the coming Kingdom. This God, according to the conviction of Jesus, had only one concern — people’s happiness. God wished to give people joy, peace, life to the full, all this as a pure gift of superabundant generosity and love. People’s past was an irrelevance in the face of this enormous generosity of God. Those who admitted their “no claim” status in the face of this gift received it as children receive. As I stressed above, (5) to receive the gift as a gift was the form of repentance and involved a new way of life. (6)
This proclamation and praxis of the Kingdom was experienced as destructive and even blasphemous by others. It led to his death. But Jesus died as he had lived. He did not change. He refused to return evil for evil. He persisted in doing good and opposing evil and suffering to the end. His death is what clinches the unconditional character of his proclamation and lifestyle: the Kingdom of God is at hand and there is only one way to live now. He did not swerve from living out the truth of God for us in the face of hatred and violence: his death, suffered through and for others, asserts the unconditional validity of loving as God loves, the God whose sun shines on all alike, whose care for people cannot be affected by their response.
Because of this consistency, the death of Jesus is the climax of his witness to the God of the coming Kingdom. All his living had been a claim to be acting as God acts; it was through the creative “finger of God” that he did what he did for suffering people. Fidelity to the Kingdom of God had brought him unavoidably to this place. Therefore, in his dying we have the fullest historical expression of who God is. It is, of course, we who brought Jesus to the cross but nothing we did could make him betray the truth of the Father for us. He died loving, not hating. He experienced, as his deepest suffering, the ‘eclipse of God’ (Buber), God-forsakenness, and accepted that too, for us.
In this he revealed God as the One who prefers to be eliminated from this world rather than do violence to those created for life. In the crucified Jesus, God is revealed as the One who takes the lowest place in creation from which God will never be displaced. God is revealed on Calvary as the One who identifies primarily with all the victims of creation and history, with all that is weak and vulnerable and God-forsaken.
God does not use force, not even against the crucifiers of God’s Jesus. God cannot. Because God is love, just as Jesus had lived it. We hear no condemnation on Calvary because Jesus is true to the Father: there is no condemnation in God.
The Kingdom comes all right — but in the power of suffering love. Love does not discriminate between guilty and innocent suffering. This shocks us. Yet it is the implication of there being no condemnation in God: for love all suffering is innocent and it only wants to abolish it. (7) But it is this self-same love that stands implacably against all the injustice and falsehood that bring suffering to people. Here, in the truth of God, we find the roots of Jesus’ praxis of justice grounded in love.
Yesterday I touched on the extent to which the evil of the world is the result of what we have chosen to define as good. Because we assume the unproblematic nature of such definitions, we do not see how terrible it would be for all of us if strict justice was the law in accordance with which the universe was to be run. None of us would survive. Forgetful of our truth as receivers of gift, we easily identify ourselves with our idealization of justice which is not gentle, not kind. (8) Jesus would never have come to death if he had been willing to compromise with injustice. The issue is not postponement of the demands of justice. The issue is living justice from the base of unconditional love of life in all its forms. Here there can be no desire to punish, only to further life.
Our theme is hope. A hope which is grounded in the truth of God revealed on Calvary is a boundless hope. We have done the very worst and it has made no difference: we have murdered love in our world and failed to change the inexhaustible compassionate concern of God for us and all of creation. In this absence of condemnation, we are free to name our evil and live again. Life truly begins for those who discover themselves as murderers of life at the foot of the cross, knowing themselves still infinitely cherished.
But to come alive in that place is to respond to the Love that suffers our evil; it is to know ourselves invited to enter into God’s pain with the world, from the world, and for the world. Liberated women and men suffer with God for the life of creation.
Already, on Monday, we spoke of the loss of a beloved child as a suffering for which there could be no explanation, no justification. What was said then about the truth of a material universe was not meant as an explanation — there are no answers. It was simply pointed out that suffering was rooted in the limitations of created reality, far beyond the relevance of any connection between sin and suffering. Any attempt to explain suffering so that it ceases to trouble us is dehumanizing escapism. Theology should at least try not to fall below the level attained by the Book of Job. (9) What is called theodicy — justifying God in the face of human suffering — is not a viable project. There is no answer that could be acceptable and no way of getting rid of the issue, since the issue is nothing other than “the open wound of life in this world.” (10)
In the cross of Jesus, we discover that God does not want people to suffer. God is on the side of all suffering creation. This is not an answer either. It is an invitation to love and suffer life as God does, an invitation to hope in the promise contained in the goodness of God’s vulnerable creation even though we cannot simply make justice happen. It is an invitation to promote the good in love in spite of on-going evil which is to be borne. It is an invitation to risk as God risks for the sake of all creation.
The cross is the key to our salvation in convincing us to love in the midst of hate; it is the key to our hope because it reveals to us the ground of all hope — the truth and the justice of the Creator God.
1 – This is one of the memorable conclusions E. Schillebeeckx comes to in his monumental study Jesus. New York: Seabury, 1979.
2 – Cf. Ben Meyer, The Aims of Jesus. London: SCM Press, 1979, 130, 287.
3 – In my experience in contexts of continuing violence, the predominant response seems to indicate a willingness to struggle for love grounded in justice, not to struggle for justice grounded in love. The difference is very palpable.
4 – Cf. The discussion in E. R Sanders, Jesus and Judaism. London: SCM Press, 1985, pp. 176-211; also Ben Meyer, The Aims of Jesus, pp. 158-162.
5 – See page 25.
6 -It is enough to hint here at the radical morality that flows from the Kingdom proclaimed.
In Mk 12:32-34 the scribes is said to be “not far” from the Kingdom when he identifies the commandment of boundless love as what matters. This implies that he is headed in the right direction. But he is still not there: he affirms the commandment and everything, for him, remained in place. When Jesus affirms the same commandment in the context of the Kingdom proclaimed, everything is changed: divorce abolished, vengeance outlawed, wealth and power radically devalued. The “great commandment” invoked by the scribe is open-ended and in this lies its abiding validity. It is the coming Kingdom, impending and already effective with its own economy, which gives the specific content to the boundless love affirmed by the scribe.
7 – Cf. J. Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom of God. London: SCM Press, 1981, pp. 47-52.
8 – Jesus’ parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard reveals us to ourselves. In the world as Jesus lives it, only grace and love, committed to transforming things, can live.
9 – But Moltmann asks: “Does Job have any real theological friend except the crucified Jesus on Golgotha?” (Trinity, p. 48).
10 – Moltmann, Trinity, p. 49.
Wednesday: Sign of our Hope by Fr Brendan Lovett from his book, ‘It’s Not Over Yet – Christological Reflections on Holy Week’, published by Claretian Publications.
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. 3 Way of the Cross of Famine:
The child, belly distended
by parasites, is helped by nobody. The onlookers
are dehumanized simply by being onlookers.
and one said
speak to us of love
and the preacher opened
his mouth and the word God
fell out so they tried
again speak to us
of God then but the preacher
was silent reaching
his arms out but the little
children the ones with
big bellies and bow
legs that were like
a razor shell
were too weak to come *
* R.S. Thomas, H’m, 1972.