God has died

sepulchre

God is dead among the dead. In the words of an ancient Holy Saturday homily read in the Breviary today:

What is happening? Today there is a great silence over the earth, a great silence, and stillness, a great silence because the King sleeps; the earth was in terror and was still, because God slept in the flesh and raised up those who were sleeping from the ages. God has died in the flesh, and the underworld has trembled.

What is happening? God is saving the utterly powerless, the lost, even pursuing them down in the very bowels of hell, as the Creed says it: “He descended into hell.” In the striking words of Hans Urs von Balthasar:

Creaturely freedom is respected but is still overtaken by God at the end of the Passion and once more undergirded. Only in absolute weakness does God want to give each freedom created by him the gift of a love that breaks out of every dungeon and dissolves every constriction: in solidarity, from within, with those refuse all solidarity. “Death and life contended in a spectacular battle: the Prince of life, who died, reigns alive.”

I thought to honor this Day of silence, the God rested on the Sabbath among the dead, I would share a lengthy journal entry I wrote last year about salvation. I pray it helps you meditate on this mystery.

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Imagine. God was born in a stable, hunted, sent into exile, rejected, condemned, brutally executed, all, in the words of the Creed, propter nos homines et propter nostram salutem “for us men and for our salvation.”

I just finished the Brothers Karamazov again, a bit ago. Every re-read yields a new harvest of insight! At one point in the midst of reading, I paused to write in the back cover these words:

To be “saved”? Often it’s spoken of as a solopsistic salvation, me and Jesus who saves my solitary soul. No! I’m never saved solo, but as bound to all. Tertullian has that potent phrase: “One Christian is no Christian.” Or that Russian proverb Fr. Hopko loves: “The only thing that a person can do alone is perish.” If I’m saved, I’m saved in totus Christus with others; and I’m saved so that I might be strong enough to carry the lost on my chrism’d back, back to the God who “wills that all men be saved” (1 Tim. 2:4). Even the saints in their so-called rest (John 5:16-17) in celestial bliss are restlessly preoccupied over those of us left behind, over our salvation. Those who are heavenly minded are of great earthly good. St. Therese got this: “I will spend my heaven by doing good on earth.” The Creed’s “in the Communion of saints” means we are inextricably bound, and their salvation implicates them in the lot of lost sinners — their joy is diminished without all sharing the joy of salvation (Luke 15:7). I bear others on my back, Samaritan-like, because Christ, to whom I am grafted in Baptism, bore us up like a scapegoat; carried on His striped back the whole wretched, limping, bleeding, stumbling lot of humanity. I am made with Christ a co-worker (1 Cor 3:9) and co-lover (John 13:34) who is co-loved (John 16:27) and co-hated (John 15:20); who is called to be with Christ a co-sufferer (Rom 8:17) co-crucified (Gal 2:20) in order to be a co-redeemer (Col. 1:24); and only then am I ready to be co-sent bearing salvation to all (John 20:21; 2 Corinthians 5:20). I am saved through, with and in the total Christ, saved by being for the sake of others’ salvation (James 5:20). I am called to be inextricably bound up in Christ’s universal saving mission, called to claim for Christ all who inhabit my thoughts (2 Cor 10:5) in a priestly up-offering (Rom 15:16) of my feeble, fallible, fragile yet God-suffused love that is revealed most perfectly when I carry the most despised and lost wretch on my back (Luke 15:3-7).

That said, I have to recognize my own personal limits with difficult people, and prudently manage my interactions with them to preserve an orderly love (ordo caritatis). Though I share in His saving work, I am not the Messiah. A therapist I know once said to me, “Sometimes the only way you can love someone is from afar.” Often the the best way to “bear the burdensome” is by intercessory prayer, by the witness of a well ordered life, by secret acts of penance offered up or untraceable acts of kindnesses done for them. The Lord highly praises good that is done without seeking recognition, acknowledgement or gratitude in return (Matt. 6:3).

Yet, I look at myself. How often I am tempted to simply cut out from my life every unpleasant person, and seek to be associated only with agreeable persons (Luke 6:32). Whether by avoidance, cutting humor, snap judgments, gossip, calumny or simply by a dismissive and tepid apathy, I distance myself from them. Dorothy Day cuts deep here: “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.” Essential to the way God wishes to save us is to expend His saving grace by means of hard relationships. When enemies become friends — and that transition can be hell — God’s grace has worked its greatest achievement in the very event of their reconciliation. To embrace the truth that the salvation of others is constitutive of your own salvation is to love God perfectly. God’s greatest desire is to reconcile all with all, and with Himself. To love God is to fulfill His fondest desires, and to allow Him to bring salvation to your enemy by means of you — what greater joy can be imagined? What nearer imitation of His Son is possible?

The sin-weighted scapegoat corpse of Jesus, laying cold and still this Day in the sepulcher, is the epicenter of the reconciliation of all things, the locus of the re-creation of a world that had become God’s mortal enemy. And on the third day, that corpse will rise from the grave and Christ, bearer of all power, will extend His wounded Hand toward His enemies and say: “Peace be with you.”

We should tremble, and never glibly say to others: “I am saved!” For when we confess this gift to another, we become the Christ (Gal 2:20) who is always prepared to stop along to road to Jericho and bring salvation…

It was this part of the Karamazov book, Book VI, Chapter 3 that caused me to write that commentary:

There is only one salvation for you: take yourself up, and make yourself responsible for all the sins of men. For indeed it is so, my friend, and the moment you make yourself sincerely responsible for everything and everyone, you will see at once that it is really so, that it is you who are guilty on behalf of all and for all. Whereas by shifting your own laziness and powerlessness onto others, you will end by sharing in Satan’s pride and murmuring against God.

“On behalf of all and for all” — I just noticed this for the first time! These are the words sung by the celebrant of the Divine Liturgy as the Deacon holds aloft the sanctified eucharistic Gifts: “Thine own of Thine own, we offer unto Thee, on behalf of all and for all.” The Canon of our Roman Rite Mass repeatedly says things like: “We offer you this sacrifice for all those…We offer you…a spotless victim…for…” We means the gathered faithful who are co-offering Christ to the Father have also agreed on their own self-offering to God (Romans 21:1). We who have been baptized are sealed by a covenant promise to the sacrificial offering of Christ. It’s why, at the end of the Eucharistic prayer, after the celebrant holds up the Bread and Chalice and sings “through him and with him and in him,” we all sing Amen. That means you solemnly, as under oath, agree to offering your whole life to God as a sacrificial offering for the life of the world. To be joined to Christ’s eucharistic qui pro vobis et pro multis effundetur in remissionem peccatorum, “poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Suddenly, your every hardship and labor in life is shot through with High value.

I saw this article by Marc Barnes the other day, that gets at this well. Here’s an excerpt:

Salvation, then, like everything Christ does, is not a finish-line, but a new beginning, the ordination of a particular man into a being-for-others, the breaking-open and turning-out of the soul to the world. If God has called me to the Christian life, it is not because he is flexing his arbitrary power to save “whomsoever he will” (all glory to him for leaving me speechless, pissy and without explanation as to why he chooses me and not my neighbor.) He chooses me for my neighbor. To be saved is to be for. The answer to the question why I am Catholic and not another is already written into the meaning of the word Catholic — universal. The universal donor can give to all blood types, the universal antidote counteracts all poisons, and the universal human being, that is, the Catholic human being, must be “all things to all people” — a being-for every other being, a being in a relationship of love to everything not-Catholic.

The spotless Lamb set out into the wolf-pack, enduring brutality. He came down from heaven to become wheat crushed, grape bled, leaven kneaded, Bread eaten, Chalice drunk. Hemmed in by myriad confines, the Unconfined redeemed all our constraining limits and rendered them full of grace. Like Mary’s tiny womb.

I cannot but think of that scene in the Passion where Jesus enters into the vicious and cowardly rabble in order to make of it a holy Communion. It’s just breathtaking to me. There, in the very midst of our most loveless parodies, God loves us to life…

2 comments on “God has died

  1. Sherri Paris says:

    Good morning, Tom–I just had a glorious spiritual “breakfast” in reading your article today. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. It truly was a feast. This has been an unusual season of Lent for me. One of learning to trust the Lord (nothing new for any of us, I might add!) during times of melancholy and frustration where one cannot always “feel” God’s presence. I chose and I choose to see His matchless love during the silence. Jesus, I trust you….. Have a wonderful Easter with your lovely family, Tom. It is a privilege to read your writings. I appreciate you so much! Sherri

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