Recently we celebrated the Triduum, the holy three-days of the Christian Liturgical Year, acknowledging Maundy Thursday, or Mandate Thursday (The Mandate being: Love One Another as I have loved you). Good Friday, in which we remember our Lord’s passion and death, and it ends Saturday night with the Great Vigil of Easter. There is so much talk and preaching on the crucifixion and death, I want to be careful to keep on task. Of course after five blogs, you would think I would throw caution to the wind. However, I want make sure this does not get into a discussion on salvation. And yet, I firmly believe it is in the suffering we are saved, but not in the common modern understanding. What I want to focus on is “What does Jesus’ Suffering and Death teach us about Theodicy?”
The Disaster of the Cross
It was a messy affair. Was it planned? Was it inevitable? Regardless it happened, and there is no way to avoid that to any onlooker or participant in Jesus’ ministry this type of death would have been humiliating, embarrassing, and devastating to any hope that Jesus was the Messiah. Today, Christians of all sorts can look back with Bibles in hand, prayer music, prayer books, vestments, neatly-prepared creeds and projection screens to declare with certainty (?!?) that this trial and death was meant to be; and some go as far to say Jesus wanted it. However, we lose the sting of this death if we lose the doubt. I imagine this Jesus would have given a lot of hope to a lot people, but not the ones with status, wealth, or power. Who did he pay attention to? The sick, maimed, poor, the mediocre, outcast, Gentiles (?!?), women…to these people Jesus was good news; to these people he would have been the Messiah. And now the hope of the poor and broken have once again been taken away. Jesus’s death is just another crushed hope for those who already had so little.
Was it a part of God’s plan? Christians say “yes.” But what does that tell us about suffering and evil? For one, in Jesus we see God does not resist evil, nor does God avoid suffering. It appears it is more important to God that He suffer as an innocent victim with other victims, than to blast away the political and religious systems that are evil and cause suffering. If it is planned, in Jesus, God makes it a point to suffer as much as possible. Why? The answer is a harsh one… suffering and evil are here to stay for a while and God is not going to blast it away. God IS going to be with us, suffer with us, be present through it.
The Crucified God and The Beginning of Reconciliation
And so the hour comes when we try to remember what it must have been like. A beaten man nailed to a cross, lifted up, mocked. There is sneering, his mother and some women are weeping, trying to ignore the curses and jokes. There is the broken disgusting man, and is he crying, whimpering? And then “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?” He is scared. Why ask the question unless you are terrified and in doubt?
I must make a confession, sometimes I see this picture in my head and think, “Good, FINALLY! He knows what it feels like!” God got his! Especially in the light of our journey through suffering; in our own journeys and in our own pain… we see God finally knows what it is like to be hurt and terrified. God finally knows what it is like to be hated, and to see your hopes and dreams dashed, to be judged wrongly, to have no voice. God knows what it is like to have your pain mocked, your life disregarded as worthless. God knows what it is like to see the pain in a mother’s eyes, to worry for them, and to be abandoned by friends.
“He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with our infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces. He was despised, and we held him of no account.” (Isaiah 53:3)
He finally knows our pain as humans… and so the real work of reconciliation can begin. In Jesus perhaps we see God reconciling Himself to humanity just as much as reconciling humanity to God; but it began with a gruesome act, and a common suffering.
“Matthew, you are doing it! You are starting to talk about salvation and reconciliation!!” Yes, you caught me, but this is a part of the question of a Christian approach to suffering and evil. It appears there is no way out of the suffering, but in the light of this reconciliation we believe God has suffered and does suffer with us in a very intimate way.
“Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our sorrows; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our inequities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:4-5)
Crux Est Mundi Medicina
The cross is the medicine of the world, at least in the Christian perspective (well some Christians). It is an answer, but one that has to be seen as an answer through defeat. In the cross of Jesus, Christians believe Jesus suffered with us and this was for us somehow. God suffers with us, and yes we suffer with God, and, if we are honest we suffer with each other. The cross binds us to God and each other in suffering, if we let it. It is in the defeated Messiah that barriers begin to be removed, and reconciliation and healing can begin.
I want to leave with a very long Scripture. So if you don’t want to read it then “here ends the lesson.” In the Episcopal Tradition, this Psalm is the Psalm we read together as a congregation as we strip the altar on Maundy Thursday night to prepare it for the sacrifice on Friday. It is at the end of the service and usually after this Psalm begins the overnight vigil to remember Jesus at the Garden of Gethsemane and in prison. We read it again on Good Friday during the hours of his passion; it is Psalm 22…we pray it with Jesus. But I wonder, did Jesus pray it with us, for us? In any case it is our prayer for the defeated Messiah:
1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
and are so far from my cry
and from the words of my distress?
2 O my God, I cry in the daytime, but you do not answer;
by night as well, but I find no rest.
3 Yet you are the Holy One,
enthroned upon the praises of Israel.
4 Our forefathers put their trust in you;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
5 They cried out to you and were delivered;
they trusted in you and were not put to shame.
6 But as for me, I am a worm and no man,
scorned by all and despised by the people.
7 All who see me laugh me to scorn;
they curl their lips and wag their heads, saying,
8 “He trusted in the LORD; let him deliver him;
let him rescue him, if he delights in him.”
9 Yet you are he who took me out of the womb,
and kept me safe upon my mother’s breast.
10 I have been entrusted to you ever since I was born;
you were my God when I was still in my
11 Be not far from me, for trouble is near,
and there is none to help.
12 Many young bulls encircle me;
strong bulls of Bashan surround me.
13 They open wide their jaws at me,
like a ravening and a roaring lion.
14 I am poured out like water;
all my bones are out of joint;
my heart within my breast is melting wax.
15 My mouth is dried out like a pot-sherd;
my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;
and you have laid me in the dust of the grave.
16 Packs of dogs close me in,
and gangs of evildoers circle around me;
they pierce my hands and my feet;
I can count all my bones.
17 They stare and gloat over me;
they divide my garments among them;
they cast lots for my clothing.
18 Be not far away, O LORD;
you are my strength; hasten to help me.
19 Save me from the sword,
my life from the power of the dog.
20 Save me from the lion’s mouth,
my wretched body from the horns of wild bulls.
21 I will declare your Name to my brethren;
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.
22 Praise the LORD, you that fear him;
stand in awe of him, O offspring of Israel;
all you of Jacob’s line, give glory.
23 For he does not despise nor abhor the poor in their poverty;
neither does he hide his face from them;
but when they cry to him he hears them.
24 My praise is of him in the great assembly;
I will perform my vows in the presence of those who
25 The poor shall eat and be satisfied,
and those who seek the LORD shall praise him:
“May your heart live for ever!”
26 All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to
and all the families of the nations bow before him.
27 For kingship belongs to the LORD;
he rules over the nations.
28 To him alone all who sleep in the earth bow down
all who go down to the dust fall before him.
29 My soul shall live for him;
my descendants shall serve him;
they shall be known as the LORD’S for ever.
30 They shall come and make known to a people yet unborn
the saving deeds that he has done.