Sunday, 20 March 2016

Jesus Forsaken, teacher of freedom

2564 words, 13 min read

[The following is the text of a talk given at Regenerate 2016.]

Yesterday morning we looked at a sketch of the breadth of freedom, ranging from the individual to the social, from the theoretical to the practical, from the protective to the enabling, and from the ephemeral to the sustainable. The journey we shared took us past three milestones, three paradoxes, which I’d like to recap at the start of this morning’s reflection.

The first paradox was, that an excess of freedom can bring us to its opposite, to slavery, either because it is used in an unsustainable way that leads to choices which limit freedom, or because one person’s freedom is used to limit that of another. The second paradox introduced the idea of obedience having the potential to lead to freedom, rather than to its opposite. By freely obeying my conscience, the voice of reason, the advice and guidance of others, my freedom can grow instead of being diminished. Finally, the third paradox spoke about freedom being possible in spite of external circumstances. When I direct the little of it that I have left towards the good of others, my freedom to love them grows, in spite of having few “freedoms to” and “freedoms from” left.

Taking a step back, these paradoxes show how freedom is a rather peculiar thing. When I take your freedom away, I am diminishing my own. When you infringe my freedom in one way, I still have other ways to make my own freedom grow and I can help you grow your freedom too. When I choose to direct my freedom towards your good, our freedom grows and persists.

Looking at this tree of freedom, with its rich network of branches extending far and wide, I would this morning like to change perspective and examine its roots. What is the source of this freedom, that is so universally attractive and for which so many are willing even to risk their own lives?

Here, as we have already seen yesterday morning, Jesus presents himself as the answer by pointing to truth as the source of freedom and by identifying himself with truth. In fact, Jesus only speaks three times about freedom in the Gospels. The first time is right at the beginning of his public life, where he goes to a synagogue in Nazareth and presents himself as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy that the oppressed will go free (cf. Luke 4:16-30). The second is when he stops a mob from stoning a woman accused of cheating on her husband, after which he says that famous “the truth will set you free” (cf. John 8:1-59).

It is the third, and final time when Jesus speaks about freedom in the Gospels that I would like to focus on though. Here he is dealing with the aftermath of having restored the sight of a blind man, who is subsequently harassed by some Pharisees who don’t believe him, who question him - and his parents - twice, and who in the end throw him out of the synagogue. When Jesus hears about this, he seeks out the formerly blind man to see whether the ordeal had shaken his faith. The man tells him: “I do believe, Lord” and worships him (cf. John 9:1-38). Jesus then takes a swipe at the Pharisees by declaring:
“I came into this world for judgment, so that those who do not see might see, and those who do see might become blind.” (John 9:39)
This definitely rubs the Pharisees up the wrong way, who snap back: “Surely we are not also blind, are we?” (John 9:40), which gives Jesus the opening for launching into one of his landmark speeches, in which he presents himself as the Good Shepherd and where he foretells his death on the cross and his resurrection. Jesus says:
“I am the good shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for my sheep. […] The Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me; I lay it down of my own free will, and as I have power to lay it down, so I have power to take it up again; and this is the command I have received from my Father.” (John 10:14-15,17-18)
And how does this go down? Badly. “Many of them said, “He is possessed and out of his mind; why listen to him?”” (John 10:20). But, let’s look more closely at what Jesus said here about freedom. First of all he situates himself in a relationship with the Father and with us, his sheep. Second, he tells us that the basis of this relationship is self-giving and a self-giving that demands everything, that goes to the point of him giving his life for us. Third, Jesus tells us that this self-giving is not directed towards death, towards nothing, but that it passes through them so that life and the Father’s love may follow. And, finally, Jesus tells us that all of this love-motivated self-giving is done freely by him. No one is forcing his hand, taking his life from him. It is Jesus who chooses to do so freely, for us and out of love for the Father.

Here we see yesterday’s paradoxes at play: Jesus freely obeys the Father’s will and directs his freedom towards our good so that we may receive freedom as a result.

Let’s follow this root deeper though. The last time Jesus speaks about freedom, he points us to his upcoming death, his ultimate, self-giving act of love towards us. But what is it that he tells us about freedom by how he lived that extreme suffering? Here Chiara points us to the specific moment in which Jesus’ suffering, and therefore self-giving love for us, is at its most extreme.

During the Second World War, in her home town of Trent in Italy, Chiara and her companions have made the discovery of God-Love as the ideal of their lives and have dedicated themselves to putting his Word, the Gospel, into practice. This lead them to helping the poor, those who have lost their loved ones, their health and all their possessions during the bombing of the city. Their desire for responding to God’s love was so strong that they gave everything for those in need, not sparing even their own health.

At the beginning of 1944 this resulted in one of Chiara’s companions, Dori Zamboni, catching an infection that left her covered in sores. A priest was asked to bring her the Eucharist and on one occasion, when Dori was in prayer after communion, he spoke to Chiara about when Jesus had suffered most during his passion. The priest suggested that it was at the moment when Jesus cried out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)

But what does this moment of Jesus’ most extreme suffering have to do with freedom? To understand how it is here that he teaches us what freedom is, Chiara unpacks what Jesus’ cry of forsakenness means:
“He had given everything.

First, a life lived beside Mary in hardship and obedience.

Then, three years of mission, revealing the Truth, giving witness to the Father, promising the Holy Spirit, and working all kinds of miracles of love.

Finally, three hours on the cross, from which he gave forgiveness to his executioners, opened paradise to the thief, gave his mother to us, and ultimately gave his body and blood, after having given them mystically in the Eucharist.

He had nothing left but his divinity.

His union with the Father, that sweet and ineffable union with the One who had made him so powerful on earth as the Son of God and so regal on the cross, that feeling of God’s presence had to disappear into the depths of his soul and no longer make itself felt, separating him somehow from the One with whom he had said to be one: “The Father and I are one” (John 10:30). In him love was annihilated, the light extinguished, wisdom silenced.”
By not only giving his humanity, his body and blood, but also his divinity, his union with the Father, Jesus becomes nothing in the moment of being forsaken on the cross. He holds nothing back. Any safety net he may have had is gone. All sense of certainty is gone, and even his words in this moment are empty. The Word, through whom the universe was spoken into being, no longer announces. All it can do is ask a question. The most basic question. "Why?"

We are witnesses of an event that manifests total self-giving and displays absolute nothingness. And it is here that the deepest root of freedom lies. Jesus Forsaken has nothing, is nothing, and nothing can therefore condition his next move. No expectations, no obligations, no pressure, no rules, no traditions, no restrictions can act on him, who is nothing. And what does Jesus do?
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)
In his moment of greatest suffering, having emptied himself, Jesus directs his absolute freedom towards the God by whom he feels abandoned.

Let us return to Dori and Chiara though, to see what this gift of having Jesus’ moment of greatest suffering revealed to them does in their lives. After the priest who pointed them to Jesus Forsaken left, Chiara turned to Dori and said:
“If Jesus’ greatest pain was His abandonment by His Father, we will choose Him as our Ideal and that is the way we will follow Him.”
Dori later spoke about her experience as follows:
“At that moment, in my mind, in my imagination, the conviction impressed itself that for us our ideal was the Jesus of the contorted face crying out to the Father. And my poor facial sores, which I saw as shadows of His pain, were a joy to me, because they made me resemble Him a little. From that day on, Chiara spoke to me often, in fact constantly, of Jesus Forsaken. He was the living personality in our lives.”
Discovering Jesus Forsaken was a life-changing experience for Chiara and her first companions, and has been a life-changing experience for many who have followed them since. It is a discovery that Chiara described in these words:
“He fascinated us, and perhaps we fell in love with him because, from the very beginning, we started seeing him everywhere. He presented himself to us with the most different faces in all the painful aspects of life. They were nothing but him, only him. Though new every time, they were simply him. […]

By living Jesus Forsaken we had come to understand that He had made Himself nothing and that in this nothingness was our life. To be like Him out of love for Him, that nothingness that we really are. We nothing, He all.”
Realizing that Jesus Forsaken is present in every suffering, in every despair, doubt, anxiety, fear, failing, loss, in every moment of difficulty I experience, in every suffering person I meet, means that I can always direct my freedom towards him and be in relationship with him. No matter how great my suffering or the suffering of another, I can always recognize the face of Jesus Forsaken in that suffering and love him in that moment.

Five years after her first encounter with Jesus Forsaken, and after an intense life of seeking and loving him in all whom she and the first focolarine and focolarini met, Chiara experienced a series of mystical visions in which she was shown Paradise. One such vision presented an image of the freedom that Jesus taught us in his forsakenness on the cross, which Chiara described as follows:
“We have been created in the image of God.

We are like fires jetting out from the Fire,
distinct from the Fire and therefore free.

In order to unite ourselves to the Fire,
and to be one with Him,
we must freely return there through pure love,
because we are if we are as we should be,
that is, pure love.”
This image sheds great light onto freedom, by pointing to its dynamic, reciprocal nature of being a gift. We receive freedom - “fires jetting out from the Fire, distinct and therefore free” - but the only way for us to keep being free, and even for our very existence to persist in the long run, is by freely making ourselves a gift in turn. God sets us free and we remain free by freely giving ourselves back to him. Then we are as we should be - pure love, created in the image of God, as taught to us by Jesus Forsaken.

Not only is this what Chiara understood about freedom in her visions of Paradise, but the end of that brief period in her life was a call for exercising freedom too. Chiara describes that moment as follows:
“Our experience was so powerful, it made us think life would always be like that: light and heaven. But what followed instead was the reality of everyday life.

It was a rude awakening, so to speak, to find ourselves back on earth. Only Jesus forsaken gave us the strength to carry on living: Jesus forsaken, whom we found present in the world we had to love – a world which is what it is – namely, not heaven.”
This meant that Chiara had to make a second, even more deliberate choice of loving Jesus Forsaken, who asked her to return to him in the world. He was waiting for her in the many sufferings of the world and hers was a free choice to make. At this moment, Chiara wrote a poem to Jesus Forsaken, which I would like to share with you now and with which I will conclude this talk. It is entitled “I have only one Spouse”:
“I have only one Spouse on earth:

Jesus forsaken.

I have no God but him.

In him is the whole of paradise with the Trinity
and the whole of the earth with humanity.
Therefore what is his is mine and nothing else.
And his is universal suffering, and therefore mine.
I will go through the world seeking it in every instant of my life.

What hurts me is mine.

Mine the suffering that grazes me in the present.
Mine the suffering of the souls beside me

(that is my Jesus).

Mine all that is not peace, not joy, not beautiful, not lovable, not serene,

in a word, what is not paradise.

Because I too have my paradise,

but it is that in my Spouse’s heart.

I know no other.

So it will be for the years I have left:

athirst for suffering, anguish, despair,
sorrow, exile, forsakenness, torment –
for all that is him,
and he is sin, hell.

In this way

I will dry up the waters of tribulation
in many hearts nearby
and, through communion
with my almighty Spouse,
in many faraway.

I shall pass as a fire
that consumes all that must fall

and leaves standing only the truth.

But it is necessary to be like him:

to be him in the present moment of life.”