Saturday, 19 April 2014

God is dead

Jesus tomb obrien

Today the Church remembers that Jesus - fully man and fully God - was dead for over 24 hours - from Friday afternoon until the early hours of Sunday (Sunday, which in the Jewish week starts at sundown on Saturday). Just like Good Friday is an opportunity to remember his suffering and self-sacrifice, and Easter Sunday is a celebration of his resurrection, so today - Holy Saturday - is a day for remembering his death. The death of God.

I have always found the Easter Triduum a very special moment, since it is set up for a contemplation of Jesus’ death and resurrection in real time. The services are timed to coincide with the times recorded in the Gospels, which allows for a meditation on the Easter events at the pace at which they happened. They give a sense of scale.

This morning, when I went to pick up my son from the altar servers’ rehearsal for the evening’s vigil, I arrived early at the church and went straight to the side chapel where the tabernacle is located. As soon as I entered, I was reminded that today was an exceptional day, since the tabernacle, where the Eucharist is usually kept, was open and empty. Like the hospital room of a recently deceased patient. An absence with a very clear and strong message.

As I sat down, I realized that I won’t be spending time in Jesus’ presence and I quickly decided not to pretend otherwise and pray as if everything was normal. The emptiness of the tabernacle had to be taken seriously and responded to sincerely and honestly.

God is dead.

What must it feel like to believe that? To believe that there is no God, that there is no beloved in and beyond everything. Instead of paralysis, my thoughts turned to my close friends who are agnostics or atheists - the pull of transcendence was too strong. To be fully myself, I had to go beyond myself (to paraphrase Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium, §8) even as I tried to stop short of rushing to God. A great conversation with my überbestie JMGR - in the midst of a buzzing conference - then came to mind, when I asked him about whether transcendence meant anything to him as an agnostic (as I was thinking about Kenan Malik’s article). Together we arrived at a definition in the absence of religious belief - that “my transcendence is another’s immanence.” Thinking more about it now, I see that this definition works also for a Christian - only an “other” becomes the “Other.”

As I thought of my atheist or agnostic friends, I felt a particular closeness to them and a joy even as I attempted the impossible - to imagine what it is to be like someone else. This joy of closeness, reminded me of Pope Francis declaring closeness to be Jesus’ own method of spreading his message (EG §269). Feeling pulled to return to a direct conversation with Jesus and away from my trying to contemplate his death, I made another attempt by trying to experience the physicality of the chapel as if it were a Serra. Since it wasn’t, that was a bit of an effort :), but the morning light that filled the simple space and the perspective that the rows of chairs emphasized, nonetheless gave me joy too. The joy of being, of relating, of seeing, of experiencing. Again, I couldn’t help but delight in God’s creation and feel his sustaining presence.

Even though my attempts at imagining the death of God ultimately failed, I was grateful for the opportunity that Holy Saturday gave me. An opportunity to think of my friends, to feel the wonder of being and to have the focus directed to a world where God’s presence is absent, but where there is friendship, goodness and beauty.

Paraphrasing Giles Fraser’s great Guardian article from this morning, I can say that I am about 1/365th atheist. And with that, it’s off to the Easter vigil.