God’s Absence on the Cross

3676650187_4aae798e18_o“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

The cry of Christ on the Cross, quoting Psalm 22, could also be the cry of modern man in his daily life. We generally experience the world as a place devoid of God’s presence. When we are aware of Him, it is by special effort, and most often by reference to ideas and not to the world itself. Modern Christians are decidedly non-sacramental. They increasingly describe Eucharist and Baptism as “empty” symbols, actions that refer to ideas, but not material means of grace. God is not in the water; He does not become bread and wine.

But the cry of Christ on the Cross is also descriptive of a historical moment that, though now showered in religious sentiment, was originally without religious content. The crucifixion of Christ was the political execution of a criminal. It had no more God-content than the dozens of crucifixions that would have preceded it in earlier months. The accused certainly had a religious following and plenty of religious enemies. His own invocation of a “Kingdom not of this world” gave the local Procurator pause, but did not stay the execution. That hesitancy might have been more of a Roman superstitious intuition (much like Pilate’s wife’s bad dream) than a scruple concerning injustice.

For the followers of Christ, His death on the Cross seems to have been a moment of profound absence. His arrest, beating and torture, as well as His condemnation left them in disarray. They were confused and bewildered by a turn of events that seemed to utterly contradict the promises made manifest in His miracles. How can a man who walks on water be tortured and crucified? Had they been deluded in thinking He was the Messiah? Was He a fraud?

The resurrection of Christ seems to have been just as unexpected. No one was waiting by the tomb in its anticipation. Even those who saw Him after the resurrection had to be taught to understand (Luke 24:45).

But for us, the Cross has been transformed – not so much by Divine work – but by the layers of religious sentiment that bury its reality and sugar-coat its emptiness. St. Paul wrote consistently of the Cross’ weakness. When he describes the Cross as the power of God, it is with the full force of its irony. Today, the Cross, as religious symbol, has lost its irony. For many, the Cross has nothing to do with the crucifixion of the innocent. It is more a political symbol and ideological identifier than a revelation of the self-emptiness of God.

In my local county in Tennessee, the political right recently celebrated a successful effort to place “In God We Trust” on the exterior of the courthouse. It represents the ability of the local Christian majority to stick a thumb in the eye of the bothersome efforts of local atheists and advocates for “separation of Church and State.” Neither group represents the emptiness of Christ on the Cross. The emptiness is more likely to be found in places where no one wants to look – for the yawning maw of emptiness is a very dark mirror for any human soul.

The crucified Christ is the utterly stark presentation of God’s absence. It is the apparent victory of death over life – the triumph of meaninglessness and the exaltation of brute force. Every human experience of absence and emptiness, of anomie and banality fail to rival the death of Christ on the Cross. Our failure to link Christ’s crucifixion with our own emptiness is driven often by our own unwillingness to go to that place. To embrace the risen Christ apart from the emptiness of the Cross (or for the Cross to be so subsumed by the resurrection), is to empty the resurrection itself of its true fullness. In such a manner we are not buried with Christ in His death, but rather unite His resurrection to our own triumphalism. The false self doesn’t want to die – instead it seeks to use the risen Lord as a prop in its own narrative.

In the journey of an authentic existence, uniting ourselves to the true and living God, we should not shun or avoid the dark night of human suffering or the bleak threat of meaninglessness – for the Cross stands precisely at that point.

Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He emptied Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name… (Phil. 2:5-9).

The secularized world as secular is the world in its own crucifixion. Emptied of all transcendence, devoid of sacrament, the world of man stretches its arms out on the hard wood of a cross – though it kneels gleefully at the same moment in the game of dice for its own clothing. It is not a world abandoned by God, but the world that abandons God. But just so, Christ hangs in the midst of the secular, for the Cross is the ultimate secular moment. That it is simultaneously the Divine/Human wonder of the Incarnation is the ultimate irony. For in its very abandonment of God, the world unites itself with His Crucifixion.

For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Cor. 5:21).

If anything, we should beware of a piety that glosses over the bleakness of the Cross, or too easily transforms it into a doctrinal event. The ultimate problem of man is not intellectual – it is existential. In the words of the elder Sophrony:

Stand at the edge of the abyss until you can bear it no longer. Then have a cup of tea.