Unbelief and Good Friday

 

Christmas and Easter are often difficult days for those who do not believe in God. Christians are more public about their faith than at other times of the year and this brings with it an annoyance. Christmas bespeaks the birth of God as a human being. Easter bespeaks a resurrection from the dead. For those who do not believe, such miracles, spoken of so glowingly and with such assurance by Christians, only increases the rub of the whole thing. Thoughts of “how can people be so gullible?” or any number of failings of Christians easily come to mind. The more the celebration, the more prominently the fact of unbelief grows in the inner thoughts.

I do not think of unbelief as a result of reason or philosophical principle. I have spent too many years observing my own heart and listening to the thoughts of others to accept such a simplistic notion of how we behave as human beings. One person professes faith on the ground of “reasonable” arguments, while another, on similar grounds, professes unbelief. The fault is not in the reasoning. Reasoning is, in fact, something we largely do “after the fact.” Indeed, this psychological reality has itself been the subject of study and has been shown to be largely true. Reason is one of the sounds we make after the fact of the heart. It is a symptom of something else and we do one another a deep injustice when we reduce faith and unbelief to something they are not.

I believe that the death and resurrection of Christ are utterly universal in their reality. They are not isolated events, significant only within the Christian belief system. I believe they are the singular moments within space and time (and outside space and time) that reveal the truth of all things, of all people, and of the heart and nature of the God who created all things and sustains them. I believe this is true whether I or anyone else believes it. The death and resurrection of Christ are the most fundamental and foundational facts of reality.

I believe that Christians make a serious mistake when we begin to speak first about God rather than first about Christ and His death on the Cross and resurrection from the dead. It is a mistake because it presumes we know something about God that is somehow “prior” to those events. We do not, or, if we think we do, we are mistaken. The death and resurrection of Christ are the alpha and the omega of God’s self-revelation to the world. Nothing in all of creation is extraneous or irrelevant to those events.

This is to say that unbelief and faith are equally a part of the death and resurrection of Christ. The death and resurrection of Christ contain the utter and complete emptiness of hell, the threat of non-being and meaninglessness, the absurdity of suffering and of injured innocence. They also contain the fullness of paradise, the complete joy of existence and the ecstasy of transcendent love. Everything is there.

When we stand before the Cross of Christ, or kneel before it and honor it, we honor as well everything that is contained within it. We honor the unbelief of atheists, the anger and bitterness of the wounded, the shame of those who dare not look at themselves. For Christ has not distanced Himself from such things. The Cross is God’s single point of ingathering, where “all things are gathered together into one in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 1:10). Unbelief is a wound of the human heart, a disease of perception, a noetic blindness. The Cross is not a stranger to cruelty or every form of mockery and perverted delight. All such things were and are present in that single moment.

As we live in this life, we are constantly tempted towards the divisions that threaten us. We see the world as “them and us.” These believe; these don’t. These care; these don’t. These behave; these don’t, and so on. The divisions are frequently quite insignificant. These divisions are primarily the symptoms of our failure to love. The people surrounding Christ were consistently scandalized by His persistent comfort and ease with those identified as “sinners.” No doubt, many of them were “unbelievers.” Somehow, Christ embraced all and announced this as central to His life and purpose.

The appearance of the Cross is also the first appearance among us of the Judgement Seat of Christ. As such, those around it indeed begin to separate themselves. Of the two thieves, one clings to Christ and the other reviles Him. But Christ offers no condemnation from the Tree. The Centurion, responsible for His crucifixion and the lance thrusting into His side, later becomes a saint (Longinus). Our task, however, is not to assume the position of Christ. The judgment that occurs as those around Him react, is also the revelation of their own wounds and brokenness of soul.

Christ said:

And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God. (Jn. 3:19-21)

It is for us to stand in the light, where our own deeds, of whatever character, can be revealed. I think that if we actually do “what is true,” it will not be in our heart to condemn, but to weep and to long for the healing of all.

Unbelief is a soul-wound whose location likely lies much deeper than the fiction of choice. It is often hidden deep within the hell that has formed in the pit of a soul’s shame. That wound will require Christ-in-Hades probing and questing, and perhaps fierce battles that are hidden from our knowledge. When the Church proclaims, “Christ is risen, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life,” it is deeply important to remember that we have the souls of those so wounded in mind.

It is ours to celebrate, to sing and to dance, even if some, for now, refuse to join together with us. The true Christ revealed by the Cross, is a saving God, a seeking God, a knocking God, a trampling God, a healing God, a raising-from-the-dead God who refuses to be ignored.

This is the good God who loves mankind.

28 comments:

  1. “As we live in this life, we are constantly tempted towards the divisions that threaten us. We see the world as “them and us.” These believe; these don’t. These care; these don’t. These behave; these don’t, and so on. The divisions are frequently quite insignificant. These divisions are primarily the symptoms of our failure to love.”

    So true, Father.

  2. Fr. Stephen,
    Oh my goodness! I’ve already read what you have written twice. What grace, wisdom and strength Christ gives you to write this way in the midst of the busiest and most exhausting week (physically and spiritually) of the Christian year. Our hearts ache on Good Friday yet we know the joyful fest is only ’round the corner. The dirge will transform in dance.
    Life will burst forth from death!

  3. Fr. Stephen,
    I will take some time later to reread this for the deep truths it holds.

    However, I wanted to note that I do not believe that the passage you quoted from John 3:19-21 was Christ’s own words – but rather a commentary by the evangelist himself. (Forgive me if I am incorrect – I too am grateful that you have spent yourself writing for us during such a physically demanding time.)

    Please pray for me as I pray for you and all of your readers.

  4. Father, in a recent conversation the question of “who has done the most for God” came up.

    It occurred to me that I had done little. In fact the priest who received my family and me into the Church had done a great deal more than me, despite the fact that he was an extremely dysfunctional priest and an unhappy man, despite the fact that his dysfunction hurt my late wife and my son and me quite deeply.
    Still, he heard confessions, laid hands on us that we might receive the grace of the Holy Spirit and did the same for others. When I first walked into the parish looking for a place to worship, Jesus Christ was obviously with him during the Great Entrance.

    Unfortunately, he was a tortured man. He ended up leaving the priesthood, the Church and his family yet in reflection I can think of few who have done more to bring the reality of God into my life.
    I sorrow for him and I pray that he allow himself to experience the mercy and Grace of our Lord even more deeply than he brought to me.

    Although it has been thirty years, I can finally thank God for that man.

  5. Michael,
    I am touched deeply by what you say. It’s difficult to be wounded and dysfunctional. It’s far more difficult to be wounded and dysfunctional as a priest. It is a very hard Cross. May God give him grace to find his way to paradise. I say this, especially, as I am deeply aware of my own wounds and dysfunctions. That God works with us – we fools – is a great mercy and generosity. Bless His name!

  6. Thank you Father. Your post reminds me of the words I read during hours with the Gospels when I read the words of our Lord in reference to mote’s in our brothers’ eyes. I have an entire lumber yard in mine and I cannot condemn someone who rejects God. I can only weep for them and pray for their enlightenment and salvation.

  7. I have been wrapping my brain around this thought — there is no “them”, there is only us. So who are “they” but a part of ourselves that we either do not know or do not love, and perhaps both. If unity in congregations is difficult to maintain, how much more difficult is it in the whole world. And yet, somehow it is easier to forgive the stranger than the brother who wrongs us. No wonder Jesus is Hope for the hopeless. We are all a hopelessly dysfunctional family. You are a blessing to us Father.

  8. On YouTube, there are a number of lectures by Fr John Behr, Dean of St Vladimir’s Seminary. My favorite two are “The Shocking Truth of Orthodoxy”, and ” Which God DON’T you Believe In?” In the latter, he has this great line: “Jesus reveals Who God Is, by the way in which he dies as a human being.”

    I think any of Fr Stephen’s readers (that is to say, Y’all) will appreciate Fr John Behr’s work. His lectures are not dry and academic, but full if joy and enthusiasm, and easily grasped by regular folks (even hillbillies like me.)

  9. It is for us to stand in the light, where our own deeds, of whatever character, can be revealed.

    How frightening and how difficult! Oh Lord, give me grace to bear this shame. Thank you for this writing, Father! And prayers for all here during this trying, yet joyful, time.

  10. Byron,
    I find tremendously comforting to understand that we are standing in the presence of the Crucified Christ. He is indeed our judge, but, as the Crucified, He Himself has entered our shame. He does not offer any words of blame towards us, but of forgiveness. In a single moment the Good Thief enters paradise! When we feel the weight of our own sin or shame, remember to look to the Crucified.

  11. Lisa Kraemer,
    Countless times I’ve entertained exactly what you have said. Still do it to this day. I often recall the phrase “familiarity breeds contempt”.
    I mentioned to my Priest recently of a distancing between myself and one who is very dear to me (we met at church). There were many similarities that brought us together initially and we quickly became close. It wasn’t long before the differences, which before were covered in the delight of a new friendship, became “uncovered”. The differences were there, we just didn’t “assess” them. When I commented to my Priest that we “got close fast”, he said with a smile, “yeah, and then you got to know each other”. I laughed. True, we didn’t really know each other when we “got close fast”.
    As was mentioned on this blog in the past, “knowing” another is not the same as getting to know them. I think it includes looking at a person not as an object to satisfy our needs (which is what I did), but simply embracing them as one made in His image. Similarities and differences are beside the point. It is here where “there is no “them”, there is only us”, as you say so very well.
    I love your choice of words, that Jesus is the Hope of the hopeless. In His love for all of mankind He offers us His life and extends mercy in forgiving those who “do not know what they do” (which is all of us). A beautiful reflection of the true love of God in these final days of Holy Week. 🙂

  12. I just left the hosp. room of my 87 year old sister in law who is dying of congestive heart failure. I’ve known her over 50 years. She was married long to an alcoholic husband. Yet through much suffering she is ready to meet the Lord Jesus. I was thinking as I drove with my wife to the hospital that if it were a crime to be a Christian here, she would be one of the 1st to place her neck willingly on the execution block (not just now that she’s dying, she has lived her life fully for Christ, the best she knows). She radiates peace. She chuckled and said to me, “Well, I’m way past the biblical 4 score years!” I pray that I can die as well. Father, was it your father in law who said, “Watch the way I die?”

  13. Fr. Stephen,

    As I was reading this post, I happened to be looping Pink Floyd’s Is There Anybody Out There? A mystical experience that doesn’t seem coincidental. Unbelief often feels like both a necessary part of coming to a point of faith, and a shield to protect us from the fact that we need communion so badly it threatens to destroy us. Even the “us and them” judgments are an attempt to make groups if for no other reason than to assure ourselves that we are actually in one. We defy the reality of the universe…with the secret hope that the universe will be goaded into answering back. This would at least give us reason to believe we are not alone.

    But Christ chose death – the most alone place of all – to be the location where we find communion. This is so genius! It is a place where “To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life. And who is equal to such a task?” We are not; only He is. But He must bring us to the end of ourselves before we are able to be in communion once again.

    Another awesome post with so many nuggets. I haven’t the words… Thank you so much!

  14. I think it’s okay to be reminded of death today, as our Lord has harrowed Hades bringing as spoils all the righteous who had died before Him. He raised Himself up from the grave and death and multitudes more as well.
    Anyone who comments here can say the same…”Oh, I wish I hadn’t said that, or why didn’t I say this?” My wife’s sister did not chuckle. If anything, she gave me a wan smile(from a previous post ). Just the 3 of us had a wonderful conversation about Christ and her impending death. Her unbelieving son wonders how she can be so peaceful. “Christ gives me His peace”…she responds through labored breathing. In just a few hours we will all shout, “Christos anesti!” And He will bring souls like that of Ila Mae with Him to paradise.

  15. Father, the insight just came to me this years after 23 years of working on forgiveness. The hurt was real and deep. It still affects my son.

    The more I reflect it the more the Scripture of God’s strength being perfected in our weakness comes to mind. The tendency is to think also that somehow the person of the priest had nothing to do with the gifts we received but that is not true.

    The particularity of salvation does not allow for it to be generic. Certainly, it was Good from whom the grace came, but I cannot discount the fact that a particular set of hands was laid on my head.

    It is also possible that I am part of bearing his burden too.

    It is impossible to be a human being and never sin; never hurt someone else or be hurt by others.

    Withdrawal is the natural response to being hurt and/or lashing out. Jesus did neither.

    The is something hidden here that I am reaching for. It is quite clear to me what it is but not the words yet.

    Thank you Father.

  16. This post, with its emphasis on Christ embracing all, makes me wonder about the canonical prohibition against Orthodox praying with non-Orthodox. The argument seems to be that doing so “legitimizes” the prayers of the non-Orthodox, which are framed as an attack on the true Church. Is it possible that this prohibition might have been more relevant in times past than it is today?

  17. Dennis,
    By prayer, it means in actual services. The reason this seems so strange to us is that we have a very weak concept of prayer. For them, prayer is communion as fully as is the Eucharist. We have emptied prayer of that content.

    Christ embraces all. But in embracing all it does not mean that all of the legitimate pain in our lives (such a broken communion) is suddenly obliterated or no longer has meaning. Our modern mentality cannot seem to grasp the concept of anything that allows suffering to continue. The brokenness of communion is for our healing and salvation – not for our destruction.

  18. Santosh Samuel,
    Thank you for the link to this beautiful article!

    To Father, and all friends here:
    Christ is Risen!

    “I pray that you leap for joy, looking at the chaos behind you from which the Risen Christ crossed you over, ‘the only blessed of our fathers’. Chant now ‘Christ is Risen!'”

  19. Hello Father,

    Thanks for response about prayer. However I am unclear as to what you mean by the words, “For them, prayer is communion as fully as is the Eucharist. We have emptied prayer of that content.”
    Could you please explain further?

  20. Father – By saying, “The death and resurrection of Christ contain the utter and complete emptiness of hell, the threat of non-being and meaninglessness, the absurdity of suffering and of injured innocence,” you answered a question I have been asking for the last 60 years. Thank you. Now I can move on.

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