“The Way of The Cross is not only a great testimony to an inner depth and maturity, but it is in fact a school for interiority and consolation. It is also a school for the examination of conscience, for conversion, for inner transformation and compassion-not as sentimentality, as a mere feeling, but as a disturbing experience that knocks on the door of my heart, that obliges me to know myself and to become a better person.” Pope Benedict
Before you get serious about Jesus, first consider how good you are going to look on wood!
That’s a line from Daniel Berrigan that rightly warns us that faith in Jesus and the resurrection won’t save us from humiliation, pain, and death in this life. Faith isn’t meant to do that. Jesus doesn’t grant special exemptions to his friends, no more than God granted special exemptions to Jesus. We see this everywhere in the Gospels, though most clearly in Jesus’ resurrection. To understand this, it’s helpful to compare Jesus’ resurrection to what Jesus himself does in raising Lazarus from the dead.
The Lazarus story begs a lot of questions. John, the evangelist, tells us the story: He begins by pointing out that Lazarus and his sisters, Martha and Mary, were very close friends of Jesus. Hence, we are understandably taken aback by Jesus’ seeming lack of response to Lazarus’ illness and the request to come and heal him. Here’s the story:
Lazarus’ sisters, Martha and Mary, sent word to Jesus that “the man you love is ill” with the implied request that Jesus should come and heal him. But Jesus’ reaction is curious. He doesn’t rush off immediately to try to heal his close friend. Instead he remains where he is for two days longer while his friend dies. Then, after Lazarus has died, he sets off to visit him. As he approaches the village where Lazarus has died, he is met by Martha and then, later, by Mary. Each, in turn, asks him the question: “Why?” Why, since you loved this man, did you not come to save him from death? Indeed, Mary’s question implies even more: “Why?” Why is it that God invariably seems absent when bad things happen to good people? Why doesn’t God rescue his loved ones and save them from pain and death?
Jesus doesn’t offer any theoretical apologia in response. Instead he asks where they have laid the body, lets them take him there, sees the burial site, weeps in sorrow, and then raises his dead friend back to life. So why did he let him die in the first place? The story begs that question: Why? Why didn’t Jesus rush down to save Lazarus since he loved him?
The answer to that question teaches a very important lesson about Jesus, God, and faith, namely, that God is not a God who ordinarily rescues us, but is rather a God who redeems us. God doesn’t ordinarily intervene to save us from humiliation, pain, and death; rather he redeems humiliation, pain, and death after the fact.
Simply put, Jesus treats Lazarus exactly the same way as God, the Father, treats Jesus: Jesus is deeply and intimately loved by his Father and yet his Father doesn’t rescue him from humiliation, pain, and death. In his lowest hour, when he is humiliated, suffering, and dying on the cross, Jesus is jeered by the crowd with the challenge: “If God is your father, let him rescue you!” But there’s no rescue. Instead Jesus dies inside the humiliation and pain. God raises him up only after his death.
This is one of the key revelations inside the resurrection: We have a redeeming, not a rescuing, God.
Indeed, the story of the raising of Lazarus in John’s Gospel was meant to answer a burning question inside the first generation of Christians: They had known Jesus in the flesh, had been intimate friends with him, had seen him heal people and raise people from the dead, so why was he letting them die? Why wasn’t Jesus rescuing them?
It took the early Christians some time to grasp that Jesus doesn’t ordinarily give special exemptions to his friends, no more than God gave special exemptions to Jesus. So, like us, they struggled with the fact that someone can have a deep, genuine faith, be deeply loved by God, and still have to suffer humiliation, pain, and death like everyone else. God didn’t spare Jesus from suffering and death, and Jesus doesn’t spare us from them.
That is one of the key revelations inside of the resurrection and is the one we perhaps most misunderstand. We are forever predicating our faith on, and preaching, a rescuing God, a God who promises special exemptions to those of genuine faith: Have a genuine faith in Jesus, and you will be spared from life’s humiliations and pains! Have a genuine faith in Jesus, and prosperity will come your way! Believe in the resurrection, and rainbows will surround your life!
Would it were so! But Jesus never promised us rescue, exemptions, immunity from cancer, or escape from death. He promised rather that, in the end, there will be redemption, vindication, immunity from suffering, and eternal life. But that’s in the end; meantime, in the early and intermediate chapters of our lives, there will be the same kinds of humiliation, pain, and death that everyone else suffers.
The death and resurrection of Jesus reveal a redeeming, not a rescuing, God.
February 10th – February 16th 2018
In his book, The Divine Milieu, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin confesses that throughout his life he was haunted by two great loves, God and pagan beauty. Both had the power to take his breath away. To feel the reality of God, he says, is to be overwhelmed by something so profound that all else is dwarfed. However, to look at pagan beauty, the loveliness of this earth and so much of what’s in it, is also to be held captive by a power so great that, for a moment at least, all else seems unimportant. In this world, he submits, there are two great enticements, the reality of God and the stunning beauty of paganism.
The stunning beauty of paganism! How fierce its attraction! How near to God its power! But the reality of God is also real and enticing, even more so than the grip of this world. To live with open eyes and an open heart is, as Teilhard submits, to find oneself painfully torn between two worlds that are not easy to keep in harmony. Invariably we sell one out for the other. How? In one of three ways:
Distortion. If we are religious, the danger is that, in the name of God, we will ignore and denigrate the real beauty of this world and see its glories and achievements as superficial and unimportant, crass and ignoble in comparison to eternal things. There is always the danger of living a one-sided religion that sets God against this world. God and pagan beauty are made out to be competitors and we are forced to choose one over the over. Teilhard calls this distortion since, in such a view, the true order of things is indeed distorted because created beauty is denigrated or denied in the name of claiming a place for God.
Passing strange, but it is not just religious people who are prone to this type of distortion. We see this all over, whenever some value is seen to be so important (godly) that in its face simple beauty is judged to be superficial. To offer one such example: Camille Paglia, an iconoclast feminist, made this particularly poignant, insightful comment on her generation of feminists. A paraphrase: “What’s wrong with our generation, the fifty-something radicals, is that we can’t accept the fact that we have all this learning, all these degrees, have written all these books, have all this maturity, but if a seventeen year-old girl walks into the room she has more power (in that particular moment) than any of us – because there’s a beauty in a seventeen year-old body that in a given situation is more powerful than all the degrees and learning in the world. So we want to change the rules, as if it were possible to change this! But, and this is the point, that beauty, the beauty of that young body, should be honoured, because it’s beautiful and it’s temporary.”
A second attitude is that of disgust, the opposite of distortion. It’s the attitude we take when we become so taken by pagan beauty so as to feel that other-world, especially its call for self-renunciation and for a perspective beyond the present moment, is repugnant and dehumanizing. The effort then is to try to live a full human life by deliberately pulling away from all that is not directly of the goodness and beauty of this life. This attitude too sets God and pagan beauty in opposition and forces us to make an unhappy choice between the two.
A third option is one that Teilhard calls division. We live this out when we give up the attempt to bring God and pagan beauty into harmony and simply live a divided, schizophrenic life. We compartmentalize the two, God and pagan beauty, keeping them separate from each other. We take God seriously and we take pagan beauty seriously, but never at the same time.
Neither of these is a happy solution. What is the solution? How do we take both God and pagan beauty seriously? How do we give them both their due? Karl Rahner affirmed that the secret here is to see created beauty against the horizon of the infinite. That’s correct, theoretically, but how do we do this practically?
By never denying, denigrating, or ignoring any beauty or any truth that we see, pagan or divine. By being honest, pure and simple. What takes your breath away takes your breath away! Never pretend otherwise. God and pagan beauty are both real, but they are not in our lives as two warring parties that must be brought to a neutral table for a negotiated settlement, but are two storms on a collision course. Be true to both and see what happens. Let the storm takes its course, trusting that the Author of all beauty, pagan and divine, will, while respecting both your struggle and the legitimate reality of pagan beauty, gently lead you into that great harmony within which nothing is lost and everything has its proper place and value.