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.

 

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Grant says

    This is genius. “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.” How well that resonates around me and the world I see. Your posts help to revitalise more than you know. Thank you yet again Father.

  2. Abigail says

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen. Your comments are very helpful to me at a time when God does indeed seem absent, though I seek Him daily.

  3. Michael Bauman says

    One of the greatest sources of emptiness is to rejoice in our own knowledge and self-suffiency.

    It is this abyss that all other philosophies and religions especially materialism and its gnostic twin the spiritual seek to avoid.

    Myself most of all.

    I remember the first time I really read Psalm 22. It terrified me — still does if I allow it to.

    I, too, want to cry out “why hast though forsaken me” and do silently–then I walk into the temple on Sunday morning and our priest intones: “Blessed is the Kingdom….”and I am almost compelled to cry out instead “Blessed is He that comes in the name of the Lord, have mercy on me!”

    And yet even in the darkness, I somehow know He is there. He is not absent from me. I, in my own will and selfishness am absent from Him.

    One instant of rejoicing is all it takes. That has become, for me, an ascetic labor for which I than you Fr. Stephen for introducing to me.

  4. breadeater77 says

    Still chewing on this paragraph: “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.”
    This is beautiful, but I’m not sure I fully grasp what is being said.

  5. David says

    Father bless! I remember during Holy Week one year my wife mentioned to our own Fr. Stevan a sort of emptiness that was felt the night of Great and Holy Friday. His reply I can’t remember exactly, but he essentially said Christ is (mystically for us) in Hades and went on to say “you could imagine, perhaps, how His disciples felt”. Not that this is exactly what you were talking about, but it reminded me of that and how the Church allows us to participate in these things. Anywho, thanks for the post.

  6. mary benton says

    Many good things here to ponder, Father.

    “The false self doesn’t want to die – instead it seeks to use the risen Lord as a prop in its own narrative.” (Ouch, that is way too true.)

    “Stand at the edge of the abyss until you can bear it no longer. Then have a cup of tea.” – Elder Sophrony. (I think I’ll have the cup of tea now…:-))

  7. Donna Hoffman says

    I didn’t understand Elder Sophrony’s quote at the end. Is secular man looking over the abyss and then saying “ho-hum” or are we sacramental Christians looking over the edge? I don’t get your point. Can you explain?

  8. says

    Father bless,

    It is this apparent absence of God that people (including me most times) don’t understand… What is easier to say than: “If God loves us, why doesn’t/didn’t He do something?” And I do not know if there can be any immediate, effective reply to this cry for material intervention. If a natural disaster occurs and people die :( and if I would be asked to try to explain why “my” God did not save those people, I might be called a murderer, or insane… (These words of our Christ come to mind: “Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13, 4-5, NKJV) or “If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us.” (Luke 23, 39)).

    I don’t know if a couple of words will be enough for somebody who already thinks in “two storeys”. There is a massive need for most of us Christians to understand, as much as we can, the ways of God, the basic “facts” about God – I am surprised to see how elders are able to “feel” who God is and distinguish His ways from man’s ways, sometimes without even being able to read or write. This puts me, the modern man, to shame. Fr. Stephen very well puts it when he says that caricatures of God are present everywhere… The absence of God in this storey is one of those caricatures’ main characteristic (and I am not a stranger to this way of thinking).

    May God give us grace.
    John

  9. says

    And Father, you put it again very well in one of your older articles (if I’m not mistaken), that one form of martyrdom is that involving the enduring of harshness day by day, for years, maybe for the rest of our lives (you told us about St. Arseny’s life in the Russian gulag). To live in an environment or world that is set on taking our souls apart, a place where we are brought too often to the point where we shout out loud: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is some form of modern martyrdom which we all encounter. This world no longer kills the body of the believer: it harms his soul directly (and I remember Christ warning about this: beware of those who can take away your soul after they have defeated the body).

    May God give us grace so that we strive to remain in His light and never give up.
    John

  10. Pete says

    Father Stephen,

    I was wondering this year, during Holy Week: with the unexpectedness of the Resurrection by the Apostles and other disciples of the Lord, how could the Jews have thought that they needed to go an guard the tomb? Were they listening to what Jesus was saying in some ways more than Christ’s followers? This is confusing to me.

  11. Dino says

    The unbreakable union of the Cross and the Resurrection in everyday life is beautifully and consolingly outlined in the well known letter (“This Was From Me”) written by saint Seraphim of Viritsa to his spiritual child, (a bishop who in a Soviet prison). Here are some sentences from it:

    “Have you ever thought that everything that concerns you, concerns Me, also? You are precious in my eyes and I love you; for this reason, it is a special joy for Me to train you. When temptations and the opponent come upon you like a river, I want you to know that this was from Me.

    I want you to know that your weakness has need of My strength, and your safety lies in allowing Me to protect you. I want you to know that when you are in difficult conditions, among people who do not understand you, and cast you away, this was from Me.

    I am your God, the circumstances of your life are in My hands; you did not end up in your position by chance; this is precisely the position I have appointed for you. Weren’t you asking Me to teach you humility? And there – I placed you precisely in the “school” where they teach this lesson. Your environment, and those who are around you, are performing My will…. Let it never happen that they tell you in your need, “Do not believe in your Lord and God.” Have you ever spent the night in suffering? Are you separated from your relatives, from those you love? I allowed this that you would turn to Me, and in Me find consolation and comfort. Did your friend or someone to whom you opened your heart, deceive you? This was from Me.

    I allowed this frustration to touch you so that you would learn that your best friend is the Lord. I want you to bring everything to Me and tell Me everything. Did someone slander you? Leave it to Me; be attached to Me… Your plans were destroyed? Your soul yielded and you are exhausted? This was from Me…. Unexpected failures found you and despair overcame your heart, but know that this was from Me.

    With tiredness and anxiety I am testing how strong your faith is in My promises and your boldness in prayer for your relatives…. Serious illness found you, which may be healed or may be incurable, and has nailed you to your bed. This was from Me.

    Because I want you to know Me more deeply, through physical ailment, do not murmur against this trial I have sent you. And do not try to understand My plans for the salvation of people’s souls, but unmurmuringly and humbly bow your head before My goodness. You were dreaming about doing something special for Me and, instead of doing it, you fell into a bed of pain. This was from Me.

    Because then you were sunk in your own works and plans and I wouldn’t have been able to draw your thoughts to Me. But I want to teach you the most deep thoughts and My lessons, so that you may serve Me. I want to teach you that you are nothing without Me. Some of my best children are those who, cut off from an active life, learn to use the weapon of ceaseless prayer…. I have given you these difficulties and as the Lord God I will bless all your works, in all your paths. In everything I, your Lord, will be your guide and teacher. Remember always that every difficulty you come across, every offensive word, every slander and criticism, every obstacle to your works, which could cause frustration and disappointment, this is from Me.

    Know and remember always, no matter where you are, That whatsoever hurts will be dulled as soon as you learn In all things, to look at Me. Everything has been sent to you by Me, for the perfection of your soul. All these things were from Me.”

  12. fatherstephen says

    Pete,
    It would seem that fear was governing the ears of both. The followers of Christ feared His loss and could not hear the promise. His enemies feared His coming back and failed to hear the promise (they heard a threat).

  13. Johnathan says

    In the end there is no hiding from the cross with either embrace it or fight it. It was once said the cross has no cushions to grab from for comfort. But in reality the comfort comes from embracing our crosses we just cannot concieve that embracing or cross can really do this.

  14. Randi says

    I was drinking a diet Coke as I read this post, and the words of the Elder to “stand at the edge of the abyss” as long as you can and then “go drink tea.”

    I feel often that I am standing at the edge of the abyss. With a diet Coke in hand.

  15. mary benton says

    Dino –

    Thanks for the excerpt from the “well-known” letter – not well-known to me. More to ponder…

  16. Margaret says

    Dino, thank you for reprinting some, if not all, of the letter from St. Seraphim of Viritsa to his spiritual child. I found it for the first time not long ago referred to by Fr. Alexis Trader on his Ancient Christian Wisdom blog. Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for providing this venue. Glory to God for All Things!

  17. Stephanie says

    Thank you for this post Father, it has been a blessing for me to ruminate and ponder. I felt the existence and emptiness staring at a wooden cross before the bend in the road before my daughter’s former mental institution. I felt the emptiness and the existence when I saw the children there. The suffering made me stand on the edge, and feel the absence, and yet the existence of Christ very near. I felt this recently when I read this post of a little boy in Russia. http://thestarsaligned.blogspot.com/2013/08/its-easier-to-not-know.html.
    And yet, I know I also am responsible for the suffering of Christ, as is everyone, and when I really begin to “know” this I want to turn away myself, but I can only beg for mercy. Suffering of the innocent reminds me of these things.

  18. Jeff says

    Are any of us really capable of that absence ?, , God redeeming something , not to waste a drop of redemption , sure …, but existential absurdity ?, , ( Jesus had some eternal reference point , at least ), …, ” despising the shame “

  19. Jeff says

    By redeeming something, I mean redemptive suffering of the communion of saints , I’m convinced God uses every drop , one way or another

  20. EPG says

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

    This quote had some of the strangeness of a Zen koan. I’m not suggesting anything more than a common juxtaposition of ordinarily disparate images which might awaken one to something beyond ordinary categories. If not a similar approach, then a parallel approach, and a parallel beauty.

  21. Todd E. says

    What do you think of Peter Rollins’ work on this theme in “Insurrection” and “The Idolatry of God”?

  22. Amanda says

    Fantastic article.. I really did have to read in 3-4 times to let it sink in. Thank you Father!

  23. Dana Ames says

    Todd,

    I’m not sure if Fr Stephen is familiar with Rollins’ work. I have only read large quotes of it, not whole books, and watched a few of his videos, but in what I have read there would be some similarity with some of the Orthodox fathers regarding God not being “Being” or any “thing”, but rather beyond Being, and certainly with doubt not being a stumbling block, and honesty before God as necessary in order to encounter Jesus by the Holy Spirit. Rollins doesn’t have the Eastern Tradition behind him, so the areas of commonality would be jumping-off points, not places of “arrival”. But many of his sensibilities are intuitively Eastern.

    Dana

  24. drewster2000 says

    Dino: That was a beautiful quote. Thank you.

    Fr.Stephen:

    This post was one of your best…how many times now have others replied with the same sentiment? I believe it is true because you are speaking about a place where people are – and they are responding almost involuntarily, just as objects vibrate simply because a note of their resonance has been played.

    You are a bell for this generation, calling people back to their Father and God. Blessed the name of the Lord – and your part in this work.