Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Jesus “descended into the depths of the absence of God.” – Kallistos Ware

I have a handful of books for lending to those we call “serious seekers”. Some of these books are philosophical, some historical, and some brazenly evangelistic. Very often I have encouraged people to work their way through The Orthodox Way by Bishop Kallistos Ware (1979). Written from an Orthodox perspective, it tends to relate the Gospel and the Faith in a “holistic” way, speaking to the cry of the heart as much as to the enquiry of the mind. Over the next couple of days I will be sharing from Ware’s book some paragraphs on the meaning of the Lord's Passion. 

"Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows" (Isaiah 53:4) - all our griefs, all our sorrows. "The unissued is unhealed": but Christ our healer has assumed into himself everything, even death. 

Death has both a physical and a spiritual aspect, and of the two it is the spiritual that is the more terrible. Physical death is the separation of man's body from his soul; spiritual death, the separation of man's soul from God. When we say that Christ became "obedient unto death" (Phil. 2.8), we are not to limit these words to physical death alone. We should not think only of the bodily sufferings which Christ endured at his Passion - the scourging, the stumbling beneath the weight of the Cross, the nails, the thirst and heat, the torment of hanging stretched on the wood. The true meaning of the Passion is found, not in this only, but much more in his spiritual sufferings - in his sense of failure, isolation and utter loneliness, in the pain of love offered but rejected. 

The Gospels are understandably reticent in speaking about his inward suffering, yet they provide us with certain glimpses. First, there is Christ's Agony in the garden of Gethsemane, when he is overwhelmed by horror and dismay, when he prays in anguish to his Father, "If it is possible, let this cup pass from me" (Matt. 26:39), and when his sweat falls to the ground "like great drops of blood" (Luke 22:44). Gethsemane, as Metropolitan Antony of Kiev insisted, provides the key to our whole doctrine of the Atonement. Christ is here confronted by a choice. Under no compulsion to die, freely he chooses to do so; and by this act of voluntary self-offering he turns what would have been a piece of arbitrary violence, a judicial murder, into a redemptive sacrifice. But this act of free choice is immensely difficult. Resolving to go forward to arrest and crucifixion, Jesus experiences, in the words of William Law, "the anguishing terrors of a lost soul...the reality of eternal death". Full weight must be given to Christ's words at Gethsemane. "My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even unto death" (Matt. 26:38). Jesus enters at this moment totally into the experience of spiritual death. He is at this moment identifying himself with all the despair and mental pain of humanity; and this identification is far more important to us than his participation in our physical pain.  

A second glimpse is given us at the Crucifixion, when Christ cries out with a loud voice, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?," (Matt. 27:46). Once again, full weight should be given to these words. Here is the extreme point of Christ's desolation when he feels abandoned not only by men but by God. We cannot begin to explain how it is possible for one who is himself the living God to lose awareness of the divine presence. But this at least is evident. In Christ's Passion there is no play-acting, nothing is done for outward show. Each word from the Cross means what it says. And if the cry "My God, my God..." is to signify anything at all, it must mean that at this moment Jesus is truly experiencing the spiritual death of separation from God. Not only does he shed his blood for us, but for our sakes he accepts even the loss of God. 

"He descended into hell" (Apostles' Creed). Does this mean merely that Christ went to preach to the departed spirits during the interval between Great Friday evening and Easter morning (see 1 Pet. 3:19)? Surely it has also a deeper sense. Hell is a point not in space but in the soul. It is the place where God is not. (And yet God is everywhere!) If Christ truly “descended into hell", that means he descended into the depths of the absence of God. Totally, unreservedly, he identifies himself with all man's anguish and alienation. He assumed it into himself, and by assuming it he healed it. There was no other way he could heal it, except by making it his own. 

Such is the message of the Cross to each one of us. However far I have to travel through the valley of the shadow of death, I am never alone. I have a companion. And this companion is not only a true man as I am, but also true God from true God. At the moment of Christ's deepest humiliation on the Cross, he is as much the eternal and living God as he is at his Transfiguration in glory upon Mount Tabor. Looking upon Christ crucified, I see not only a suffering man but suffering God.


Anonymous said...

If he was both man and suffering God,this denotes no separation when in hell, after all he cannot renounce himself nor God the father within.
The separation mentioned, I believe is an emotional withdrawl from the feelings and presence of the God Head. As befiting the other losses and sufferings of the cross which would drive the mind emotions and soul to utter desolation beyond our human comprehension. +++

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