Thursday, 1 May 2014

The salvific atheism of Christ


[Warning: Long read.]

The title of this post is a quote from a conversation between Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi and the journalist and atheist Eugenio Scalfari. There, Ravasi argued that Jesus’ cry on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) can be described as a “salvific atheism.” An atheism that is juxtaposed with the Resurrection, where Jesus remains the Son even when He doesn’t feel the Father and thereby “plants the seed of the infinite in mortality.” Many shy away from attributing atheism to Jesus in this moment, where He laments His being abandoned by God, with a lot of hand-waving and “as if”s or appeals to reason along the lines of “how could Jesus, who is God, have been abandoned by God?!” Such attempts at denying Jesus’ profound experience of the absence of God may have good motives, but they have always struck me as being misguided, since they obscure the extreme nature of this most important moment of Jesus’ life.

That Jesus underwent a trial of this magnitude, where his suffering drove him to a loss of feeling united with the Father - i.e., the very heart of the Trinity, is the most powerful indication of how far God is willing to go towards us, whose faith is limited at the best of times. He is showing us that He is our brother also in darkness and during experiences of the absence of God.

The importance of this nadir in Jesus’ life (and pinnacle of His self-noughting love) was profoundly understood also by Chiara Lubich, the founder of the Focolare Movement who is now on the path of being considered for sainthood, and by the agnostic Swedish film director, Ingmar Bergman.

For Lubich, who with her first companions has spent years focused on putting the Gospel into practice, the realization of the importance of Jesus’ forsakenness on the cross came, when - in 1944 - her spiritual director asked her when Jesus suffered most and declared that he thought it was in his cry of forsakenness on the cross. Looking back to that moment some 56 years later, Lubich described it as follows:
“Right from the start we understood that fullness had another side to it, the tree had its roots. The Gospel covers you in love, but demands everything from you. “If the grain of wheat doesn’t fall to the earth and die – we read in the Gospel of John – it remains just a grain of wheat, but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jn 12:24). And the personification of this is Jesus Crucified, whose fruit was the redemption of humankind. [...] Through a particular circumstance, we came to know that the greatest suffering of Jesus and, therefore, his greatest act of love, was when on the cross he experienced the abandonment by the Father: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” This touched us to the depths. And our young age, our enthusiasm, but especially the grace of God, urged us to choose only him in his abandonment, as the means to realize our ideal of love.”
Having identified Jesus’ forsakenness as the pinnacle of his love, Lubich and her companions sought to find, love and console Him in the sufferings of all around them and in themselves:
“From that moment on, we seemed to discover his countenance everywhere. He had experienced within himself people’s separation from God and from each other, and he had felt the Father far from him. We saw him not only in all our personal sufferings, which were never lacking, but in those of our neighbor, often alone, abandoned, forgotten, in the separation between generations, between rich and poor, within the very Church at times, and, later, between churches, then between religions and between persons of different convictions.

But these wounds didn’t frighten us. On the contrary, because of our love for him in his abandonment, they attracted us. He had shown us how to face them, how to live them, how to cooperate in overcoming them when, after the abandonment, he placed his spirit in his Father’s hands: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” giving to humankind the possibility of being restored to itself and to God, and he showed us the way. And so he manifested himself to be the key to unity, the remedy for every disunity. He was the one who recomposed unity between us each time it cracked. In him we recognized and loved the great and tragic divisions of humankind and of the Church. He became our only Spouse.”
During Lent that same year, Lubich meditated on Jesus’ forsakenness in this way:
“He who is life itself was giving himself completely. It was the culmination of his love, love’s most beautiful expression.

All the painful aspects of life conceal his face: They are nothing other than him.

Yes, because Jesus, crying out in his abandonment, is the image of those who are mute: He no longer knows how to speak.

He is the image of one who is blind – he cannot see; of one who is deaf – he cannot hear.

He is the weary person, moaning.

He is on the brink of desperation.

He is hungry ... for union with God.

He is the image of one who has been deceived, betrayed; he seems a failure.

He is fearful, timid, disoriented.

Jesus forsaken is darkness, melancholy, contrast. He is the image of all that is strange, indefinable, that has something monstrous about it. Because he is God crying out for help!

He is the lonely person, the derelict. He seems useless, an outcast, in shock.

Consequently we can recognize him in every suffering brother or sister.”
Finally, Lubich, who has made love of Jesus forsaken her life, describes the following effects of identifying and loving Him in others: “after each encounter in which we have loved Jesus forsaken, we find God in a new way, more face-to-face, with greater openness and fuller unity. Light and joy return; and with the joy, that peace which is the fruit of the spirit.”

To get another, deeply insightful, perspective on this key moment in Jesus’ life, Bergman’s “Winter Light,” that premiered in 1962, has its characters speak about it twice. First, when the pastor of a town, plagued by doubt, breaks down in front of a parishioner who comes to him for help, saying, with obvious anguish and torment throughout:
“If there is no God, would it really make any difference? Life would become understandable. What a relief!

And thus death would be a snuffing out of life. The dissolution of body and soul. Cruelty, loneliness and fear ... all these things would be straightforward and transparent.

Suffering is incomprehensible, so it needs no explanation.

There is no creator. No sustainer of life. No design.

My God...

Why have you forsaken me?

I’m free, free at last.”
Before giving thought to the above, let’s look at the second reference to Jesus’ forsakenness, which comes later, when the disabled sacristan (who didn’t hear the pastor’s lament) shares the following reflection with him:
“Wouldn’t you say the focus on [Christ’s] suffering is all wrong? This emphasis on physical pain. It couldn’t have been all that bad. It may sound presumptuous of me - but in my humble way, I’ve suffered as much physical pain as Jesus.

And his torments were rather brief. Lasting some four hours, I gather? I feel that he was tormented far worse on an other level.

Maybe I’ve got it all wrong. But just think of Gethsemane, Vicar. Christ’s disciples fell asleep. They hadn’t understood the meaning of the last supper, or anything. And when the servants of the law appeared, they ran away. And Peter denied him. Christ had known his disciples for three years. They’d lived together day in and day out - but they never grasped what he meant.

They abandoned him, to the last man. And he was left alone. That must have been painful. Realizing that no one understands. To be abandoned when you need someone to rely on - that must be excruciatingly painful. But the worse was yet to come. When Jesus was nailed to the cross - and hung there in torment - he cried out: “God, my God! Why hast thou forsaken me?” He cried out as loud as he could. He thought that his heavenly father had abandoned him. He believed everything he’d ever preached was a lie. The moments before he died, Christ was seized by doubt. Surely that must have been his greatest hardship? God’s silence.”
To my mind, the above are two great attempts at an identification with the forsaken, crucified Jesus. The first, the pastor’s, is an identification from within - a re-experiencing of Jesus’ forsakenness at first hand, that leads the protagonist to a wishing away of it all, to a denial of the problem’s reality and a subsequent, forced declaration of freedom (forced and strained because of how it is portrayed in the movie). The second is an identification from the position of compassion and intuition - the disabled sacristan takes his own physical and psychological sufferings as a basis for inferring the greater magnitude of the latter, and - by extrapolation - intuiting that Jesus’ forsakenness on the cross - the experience of “God’s silence” - must have been most severe.

In many ways it is the pastor’s experience that gives the greatest sense of what it may have been like for Jesus himself, by the anguish and despair that it presents. The sacristan’s monologue, in turn, is - to my mind - already a source of hope in that it demonstrates another’s capacity to intuit my despair and therefore be lead to compassion.