Easter is a time of exultation. The Vigil Mass opens with the Exultet, proclaiming to the world that it is time to rejoice. But there was a time when this universal acclaim of triumph wasn’t taken for granted, when Christ appeared to be dead and defeated. Even now, to get to Easter Sunday, we must first pass through Good Friday.
When the apostles saw Christ crucified it was not hope that reigned in their hearts. It was despair. The man to whom they had chosen to attach their lives had been hung like a lowly criminal on a cross, alongside two thieves. The son of God had been equated with crime and trespasses of tradition. On the way to the Cross, He had been spat at, whipped bloody, and made to carry the cross which was to kill Him. The scene is not pretty, nor is it meant to be. It is well-rehearsed in the Western mind traditionally, although often forgotten or questioned in the modern West. The scene, however, serves to teach us all something true not only about God – that He can conquer death – but rather something about us and our condition as mortals. It teaches us both the meaning of suffering, in that we cannot always reach our intended goals without painful struggle, and also that our relationship to God is not always straightforward.
“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” So shouts the son of God while he hangs on the cross. The usual answer as to why he uses these words is that he is quoting the psalms. This is of course true. Yet, surely, the meaning is deeper than an exegetical reading allows. The truth revealed is at least partially phenomenological. By this, I mean that Christ taps into a common feeling, which is known by experience: either our own or that of someone we know. It is the feeling of God being distant and unreachable. G. K. Chesterton made a similar remark, stating that Christianity is the only religion where God Himself seemed for a moment to have been an atheist. The key here is seemed. Naturally, Christ could not deny or question His own divinity. Rather, Chesterton, and in more recent times the Slovenian atheist philosopher Slavoj Zizek and I, all posit that the truth Christ imparts to us is one that we can only sympathise with if we know Christ has sympathy for us in turn. We come to know God with our minds, we experience His grandeur when we see beauty or witness an act of kindness. Despite all that, we can in our lowest moments perceive Him as distant. This sense is also attested to by saints such as St Therese of Lisieux and St Theresa of Calcutta.
The feeling of God’s distance is a truth about us, and not a truth about God. God is always present and always the source of being. There is an ancient strand of theology that is known as apophatic theology. This is a theological school that says we come to know God more by what He is not than by what He is. That is to say, we know God is not a rock; He is not an infinitely wise being. He is like a rock, but not actually a rock. He is wise, but not in the sense that a human is wise. And so on. We need positive terms as well, such as loving, good and wise, which we can build on. But these concepts themselves never suffice to explain who God is. Hence, according to this school of thought, God is not a being – He is not a “thing” among other things, just infinitely higher. He is beyond being, and, as such, the source of all being. Given this fact, it might not be entirely surprising that God can seem distant, but, due to His incarnation, we know Him in a personal manner. The ancient Greeks had similar thoughts about the nature and knowability of the divine, but could never reach beyond their reasoned accounts, as they lacked this interpersonal connection to an incarnate God.
God can seem beyond our comprehension. He can seem like a distant father who has turned His back on us. All these things are experientially true for some people, at least at certain points in life. This sense should not lead to despair. Rather, it is an invitation to search for God more earnestly. We have to come to know God as a person, who lived and died for our sins, and only by doing this can we know God as He wants to be known: the word made flesh, who dwelt amongst us, died for our sins, and rose again in glory.
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