If you can’t join Christ on the Cross, you’ve got the wrong Cross

12724940_1720132754866853_78842786_nI’m in the middle of James Alison’s Knowing Jesus and hope soon to put together some thoughts on 1Cor 2.2 where Paul resolves to “know nothing except Christ and him crucified.” In the meantime, because I’ve been discussing a good deal about whether, and if so how, the Cross can be the “center” (the hermeneutical center of faith as it engages Scripture), I want to offer a thought on the general tendency to make the Cross (at least a certain vision of the Cross) the place where Christ suffers the godforsakenness we justly deserve because of our sin. The more I think about this, the less sense it makes. I don’t doubt there is a Cross “because” of our sins, and I don’t doubt that Christ suffers “for” us. I agree also that the Cross defines or shapes faith. But that means it shapes a movement toward an end or telos. But the Cross can’t be that end, not if Christ is risen. I think it would be extremely helpful to think through these questions in terms of ‘ends’ rather than of ‘centers’. Perhaps that needs to become an additional part of our series What is the Bible? But for now, ask yourself what the ‘end’ or ‘telos’ of creation is. Where’s it going? What divine reality fulfills it? I suggest that while the Cross defines the shape of the journey, it isn’t the end of the journey, and it would be worth exploring whether we ought to make that end the hermeneutical center of our faith and not any means by which we reach the end, however necessary those means may be.

Since I’m doing a poor job of articulating this, let me offer a couple of thoughts on Phil 3 and try to describe what I mean by making the Cross as means relative to ends achieved beyond resurrection. I’m not negating the revelatory value of the Cross or its value as a demonstration of love. I’m suggesting it’s not the center of the center. Phil 3.8-11 (vv. 10f here):

I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and to participate in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.

a_light_in_the_darkness_by_abenteuerzeit-d5dlskcI’ll offer CWG as the backdrop for my thought here since it proposes an understanding of the Cross as a kind of suffering we can’t participate in because it is God suffering godforsakenness as the consequence of our sinful choices. Without question this is not a suffering we can participate in. It is suffering we’re saved from. Yet we see Paul wanting to “participate in Christ’s sufferings” and to “become like Christ in his death” (even to “fill up in his flesh what is lacking in Christ’s sufferings,” Col 1.24).  These are curious things to say indeed if Paul believes the Cross is God suffering in our stead the godforsakenness we deserve.

I suggest that at the very least

…we understand the Cross not as a kind of suffering from which we are excluded (because it is a godforsakenness we are saved from) but as a kind of suffering and death we are saved in or through.

This difference in perspective is the kind of small difference between competing orientations that end up worlds apart the farther down the road one tracks their implications. I don’t think Paul could be any more explicit: the Cross isn’t the Incarnate God dying instead of us (however legitimately talk of ‘substitution’ expresses a perspective on an aspect of what’s happening), it is the God-Man dying ahead of us — showing us how to die, how life is found in the worst the world can do to us, and also how to suffer redemptively as a victim of the world’s violence. But all this precludes the Cross’s being the place where Father, Son and Spirit are estranged from one another. On the contrary, it’s where all estranging narratives, including narratives of the Cross as estrangement, are exposed as false and impotent precisely because they do not offer us a ‘way’, a suffering, we can participate in, a death to which we can conform. If Paul hopes to attain the resurrection on account of “becoming like Christ in his death” through “participating in his sufferings,” then Christ’s death can’t be the place where Father, Son and Spirit suffer godforsakenness in our stead.

This thought is found outside of Paul as well. Hebrews 13.13f:

Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.

Again, here the Cross represents sufferings we follow Christ into, “bearing the disgrace he bore,” hardly something we rejoice in being saved from. Mere verses prior to the call to follow Christ by bearing the disgrace he bore “outside the city” (a reference to the only ‘abandonment’ in view, viz., the abandonment of us by the world) we find this encouragement which precedes and introduces the whole passage:

Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you. So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?”

The Cross is where these words are proved true, not the one time they fail to be so. This is a Cross we can follow, suffering we can participate in, a death we can conform to, and in conforming to his death, a resurrection we can attain.

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The beatitude of sacrifice

Th5179290237_63633e1bd7_bis, then, is the sacrifice of Christ – this is its infinite extravagance and its essential peace. The saving exchange that occurs for us in the incarnate Word is perfectly expressed for Cyril in John 20:17, when the risen Christ says, “I am going to my Father and your Father; to my God and your God”: for here we see how the Son’s Father by nature has become our Father by grace, precisely because our God by nature has become his God through condescension. Indeed, for Cyril, whenever Christ calls upon his Father as “my God,” He does so on our behalf and in our place: especially in the cry of dereliction from the cross. And this is our salvation: for when the infinite outpouring of the Father in the Son, in the joy of the Spirit, enters our reality, the apatheia of God’s eternal dynamic and replete life of love consumes every pathos in its ardor; even the ultimate extreme of the kenosis of the Son in time – crucifixion – is embraced within and overcome by the everlasting kenosis of the divine life.  Because divine apatheia is the infinite interval of the going forth of the Son from the Father in the light of the Spirit, every interval of estrangement we fabricate between ourselves and God – sin, ignorance, death itself – is always already exceeded in him: God has always one infinite further in his own being as the God of self-outpouring charity than we can venture in our attempts to escape him, and our most abysmal sin is as nothing to the abyss of divine love. And as the Word possesses this trinitarian impassibility in his eternal nature, and so as God cannot change or suffer, as a man he can suffer all things, bear any wound – indeed, bear it more fully than any other could, in absolute depth – not as wrath or defeat but as an act of saving love: as Easter. And while God’s everlasting outpouring, which is for him a life of infinite joy, in assuming the intervals of our estrangement from God, appears for us now under the form of tragic pain and loss, the joy is the original and ultimate truth of who he is, is boundless, and cannot be interrupted – and so conquers all our sorrow; he is already higher than the vaulted heavens of the gods and lower than the most abysmal depths of hell – as bliss, as love; our abandonment of God, and the abandonment of the Son and of every soul in death, is always already surpassed by the sheer abandon which the Father begets the and breathes forth his being. And the terrible distance of Christ’s cry of human dereliction, despair, and utter godforsakenness – “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?” – is enfolded within and overcome by the ever greater distance and always indissoluble unity of God’s triune love: “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.”

– David Bentley Hart (The Beauty of the Infinite)

As I thought about this passage, about the way God’s trinitarian beatitude cannot be divided or estranged from itself in the triune act of God’s self-knowing and love, I thought of fractals – the whole in every part – every part the whole. It’s impossible to fragment a fractal, to disrupt its infinitude. If you break off a piece, the whole is present in it. Even if the contentment of the divine identity is subjected to the horrors of human crucifixion, even in this apparently fragmented moment, the whole truth, beauty and goodness of God are fully present.

My God, My God, how have we misinterpreted you?

Easter-message-picMy final thoughts on the so-called Cry of Dereliction, after which I promise to abandon this subject (pun intended). We should finally consider the relevant texts themselves. In CWG (pp 770-774) Greg expounds his understanding of Christ’s cry “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46 and Mk 15.34) as the “paradigmatic judgment of sin.” Greg takes the words of the Cry to be the “most profoundly revelatory” words found in Scripture, for here God “experiences his antithesis” by “becoming the sin of the world” (2Cor 5.21) as well as “our godforsaken curse” (Gal 3.13), though Greg does not consider this to be the Father acting violently toward Jesus.

Evaluating Greg’s objections to the Ps 22 connection
Greg notes the Cry has always troubled theologians who were “invested in preserving the classical understanding of God’s impassibility and immutability,” aspects of which (viz., actus purus or ‘pure act’) he summarizes and dismisses; “How could God the Son truly experience abandonment from the Father if the Trinity is ‘above’ suffering and ‘above’ experiencing any kind of change?”

I’m not sure how “troubled” by the Cry theologians are who seek to defend a classical understanding of God’s impassibility. Greg doesn’t give any examples. Given the classical view of transcendence, I suspect there’s far less likelihood the Cry would trouble a classical theist than a kenoticist – truth be told. However, I don’t mind agreeing with objections to aspects of classical theism (as I understand actus purus). We’ve made them repeatedly ourselves here. But Greg’s account makes it appear as though any rejection of actus purus classically understood is a default adoption of his understanding of the Cry as the Father’s abandonment of the Son. But it’s worth pointing out that one could agree with Greg on all his substantive objections to classical theism and yet reject Greg’s thesis of divine abandonment as equally objectionable as whatever aspects of classical theism one has a problem with. There’s no default win for Greg’s view of the Cry if classical theism is proved to be wrong. But I got the distinct feeling in CWG that Greg construes his view of the Cry as following logically from certain weaknesses of classical theism, which of course it doesn’t.

Classical theism aside, however, there are serious theological problems with divine abandonment on the Cross as Greg imagines it. I’ve rehearsed these already. Even a thorough-going kenoticist could have as great a problem with Greg’s thesis as she does with Chalcedon. But what about the exegetical particulars of the Cry itself? Let’s take a look at aspects of it that Greg brings up in CWG.

First, consider the Greek transliteration of Jesus’ Cry in both Mt and Mk:

Matthew 27:46: Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?
Mark 15:34: Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?

The transliterations in both Mt and Lk are followed by a similar “…that is to say, ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’”

Second, Greg offers two reasons for thinking Jesus is not alluding to Ps 22 but is in fact offering his own, original composition expressing his personal dereliction. First, he notes that if Jesus was alluding to Ps 22, he would surely have quoted it in Hebrew. But he speaks in Aramaic (which we have in the form of transliterated Greek). That Jesus speaks Aramaic suggests he does not have Ps 22 in mind. Secondly, Greg quotes R. T. France’s objection that “if we read into these words an exegesis of the whole psalm…we turn upside down the effect which Mark has created by this powerful and enigmatic cry of agony.”

Let’s look at this shall we?

(1) There’s no argument in France’s quote. Yes, if we take Jesus to be alluding to Ps 22 (“as an expression of confidence”), we understand Jesus’ pain as not indicative of a particular agony, namely, the agony of divine abandonment. But (a) this is the point of debate, so how is it an argument in favor of Greg’s view that if Jesus is alluding to Ps 22 his agony must be understood differently than Greg thinks? In addition, (b) no one who denies Jesus is abandoned by God thinks Jesus is not experiencing the agony of being crucified and left to die.

(2) More significant is the apparent fact that Jesus cries out in Aramaic. Jesus is a Jew whose Scriptures are written in Hebrew. It seems strange that in his dying moment Jesus should quote his Scriptures not in their original Hebrew but in his mother tongue, Aramaic. Greg reasons that this must mean Jesus is not alluding to the Hebrew Psalm 22 but authoring his own personal cry of abandonment.

In response, I suggest that it’s completely understandable that a dying person would cry out to God in his heart-language, which was Aramaic for Jesus, in spite of the fact that the text he alludes to is a Hebrew text. I don’t find this especially odd at all. There were Aramaic targums of Ps 22 that were popular in Jesus’ day, and he would not have been ignorant of these. I suggest that given the intensity of his sufferings and the nearness of death, it would be unusual to hear him cry out to God in a language other than Aramaic (his heart-language).

christ-on-the-mount-of-olives-1819But there are few other interesting facts about the Greek transliterations of the Cry found in Mt and Mk which Greg doesn’t discuss which I’d like to consider.

(a) Ancient Hebrew and Aramaic were different but very closely related languages. For example, lama (some MSS have limi, “to what” or “for what”) is both Hebrew and Aramaic for “why.” There’s no deciding what language Jesus cried in based on this word. And both Hebrew and Aramaic indicate the perfect tense of the 2nd person singular with the attached pronoun “me” (as in “You ______ ed me” ) by suffixing the verb root with “—ani.” The verb conjugations are identical in Hebrew and Aramaic.

(b) “My God” doesn’t settle the matter either, since it is transliterated differently in Matthew and Mark. Most ancient Greek MSS traditions try to normalize these differences between the two. Only the Byzantine text consistently preserves the distinction. (Of course the Nestle-Aland preserved the differences as well.) What differences? Well, Matthew transliterates Jesus’ Cry with Eli (Ἠλί) for “My God” which, interestingly, mirrors the Hebrew of Ps 22. Mark has Eloi (Ἐλωΐ) which is Aramaic and not biblical Hebrew.

(c) Though there is some question over its precise origination and meaning, the verb shabaq is not biblical Hebrew but originally Aramaic. Were Jesus quoting the Hebrew text, he would have used azavthani (“forsaken” or “abandon”) which we find in the Hebrew of Ps 22.

(d) The verb shabaq, however, is not only Aramaic, it’s also Mishnaic Hebrew (a descendant of biblical Hebrew that developed under the influence of Aramaic following the Babylonian captivity). It’s entirely possible that Jesus is citing Ps 22 in Mishnaic Hebrew. And there are those who argued that presenting a biblical text in Mishnaic Hebrew was a well-known Rabbinic technique introducing a midrash (interpretation or teaching) on the text in question.

(e) What does seem unlikely is that Matthew would have changed the Aramaic Eloi to the Hebrew Eli and not change sabachthani to azavthani if he was interested in making the quote conform to the Hebrew text. But if Mishnaic Hebrew is in view, then things fit. In addition, there is the question of Aramaic targums that do use shabaq in their translations of Ps 22.

What’s the point of all this?
The linguistic data isn’t easy to assemble into a coherent picture. But it’s not altogether certain that Jesus was speaking Aramaic on the Cross. My point is that if he was, there is nothing about this that would suggest he was not alluding to Ps 22. Matthew’s account makes the Mishnaic Hebrew connection stronger because Eli is clearly Hebrew, and Mark’s passion narrative (cf. Rikk Watts on Mark’s use of Ps 22) has obvious allusions to Ps 22 besides the Cry. I take it to be virtually certain that Jesus is alluding to Ps 22.

However, Greg offers yet a further reflection. Let us assume, he suggests, that Jesus is alluding to Ps 22. This would not, he contends, “undermine the genuineness of Jesus’ experience of abandonment on the cross,” for it was only “after the psalmist had expressed his authentic sense of abandonment that he regained his composure, as it were, and expressed confidence that God would eventually rescue him.” So even if one understands Jesus as referencing Ps 22, it needn’t lead us to deny that Jesus “was genuinely experiencing godforsakenness” and “was even experiencing confusion as to why it was happening.”

But this seems confused. Does Greg want a genuine abandonment of the Son by the Father, a true withdrawal of the Father that occasions a genuine experience of godforsakenness, or not? It seems his cruciform thesis itself requires that Jesus’ feel this particular agony and that it not be the result of misperceiving. But Greg’s proposed reading of the Ps 22 (on the assumption that Jesus is alluding to it) concedes that God in fact never abandoned its author. The author only temporarily loses his composure and misinterprets his suffering; but this undermines Greg’s case for more than an apparent abandonment. So I don’t see how Greg can concede that Jesus has Ps 22 in mind and still secure the particular view of divine abandonment that defines his view of the Cross.

What in Jesus’ experience parallels Ps 22?
What about those who argue Jesus is alluding to Ps 22 in its entirety but who also argue Jesus never despairs of the Father’s love, presence, and filial affection? Surely there must be something in Jesus’ experience that parallels or fulfills the psalmist’s cry which, admittedly, seems to reflect some doubt or lapse in his belief or confidence in God’s faithfulness.

This is an excellent question. My own sense is that there is nothing in Jesus’ experience that parallels any suspicions the psalmist might have in God’s faithfulness, nor must we suppose there to be in order to make sense of Jesus alluding to the psalm. To begin with, assuming the psalmist genuinely interprets his suffering as God’s having abandoned him, it does seem strange that he would go to this same God in prayer. Biblical prayer presupposes at least some confidence in the faithfulness of God, some belief that God hears one’s prayer and is open to responding. Is his opening cry a poetic-rhetorical device to heighten suspense and drama? When we cry “God where are you?” does it follow that we’ve concluded God has forsaken or abandoned us? If so, why are we addressing our prayers to him at all? No prayer to God can be motivated by a belief that God has absolutely forsaken and abandoned us.

7511534I don’t want to belabor the point. I’ve already drawn out this series on divine abandonment too long. My point here is that whatever the precise belief of the psalmist may have been, there is no one-for-one parallel between every belief and attitude held by the psalmist from the beginning of his experience to his vindication, on the one hand, and existential carbon copies of each of those beliefs and attitudes that must obtain in Jesus. There’s no warrant for insisting on this kind of ‘fulfillment’ simply because Jesus alludes to Ps 22. It’s enough that Jesus responds to the taunting crowds who provoke him with their “Where’s God now?” and “Come on down if God’s on your side!” by offering them a well-known account of an innocent, scapegoated victim who was not in fact abandoned by God but who was vindicated: “You think God has abandoned me here? You think I’m cursed by God as I hang here on this tree? Go read Ps 22 and think again.”

What about the Garden?
It occurred to me that Jesus’ sufferings en route to the Cross have an important role to play in deciding what Jesus took to be the meaning of his pain and suffering, and the intensity of his suffering in the Garden (Mk 14:32-34; Mt 26.36-46; Lk 22.43-44) came to mind. How are we to understand this suffering relative to claims that it is divine abandonment experienced as godforsakenness which gives Jesus’ suffering its redemptive value? In the Garden Jesus suffers beyond description, sweating blood. He confesses that he is at the point of death. He offers his humanity in all its finitude and natural weakness to God, truly wishing for there to be another way.

There is, however, no divine abandonment here. In fact, Jesus converses with his Father and is comforted by angels. At the center of his storm of pain there is the eye of the Father’s filial affection mediated to him by the Spirit. He is not alone (as he had made clear to his disciples – Jn 16.31-33). He knows the Father’s love and presence and still he sweats blood and feels like dying. So it doesn’t seem that divine abandonment either constitutes Jesus’ understanding of his own suffering or that it is necessary to give his suffering their unique healing, redemptive value – unless we wish to argue that Jesus’ suffering in the Garden, his flogging, or the pain he bears en route to Golgatha all have no healing, transformative value in our lives simply because they were accompanied by his belief that the Father was personally and affectionately with him through it all.

My fundamental point is that this suffering is healing and transformative in our lives precisely because the Father’s personal presence and affection are present, defining Jesus’ own self-perception and understanding of his pain at a level nothing could deconstruct or wrest from his heart. There, friends, is our saving act. The reason nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ (Rom 8) is because nothing can separate God from himself in Christ.

Happy contemplating!

How Jesus viewed his Cross

hqdefaultPermit me another reflection (or set of reflections) on the question of whether the Son was abandoned by the Father on the Cross. The question is often answered solely in terms of the Cry: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Disagreements over the meaning of the Cry are played out in terms of whether Jesus is referencing Psalm 22 and if so how this might or might not inform our understanding of what Jesus believed to be the state of his relationship with God to be. My own sense is that this cry is indeed a reference to Psalm 22 and that, given the context of the Psalm, what Jesus is actually saying is “I am not abandoned by God as you suppose,” which is the opposite of what many take the Cry to mean. But it comes as bad news to some that Jesus did not suffer from any dereliction of mind or belief regarding the Father’s abiding love, intentions, support or presence throughout his passion.

In this post I think it would be helpful to expand the search beyond the Cry itself for clues to understanding how Jesus might have intended these words. How did Jesus view his Cross? Did he anticipate his own suffering? Did he describe it ahead of time? Did he saying anything during his trial that might give us an insight into what he thought was going on or what he believed would be the meaning of his suffering? What else did he say while on the Cross? Can his statements in any of these contexts help us understand his own understanding of his suffering?

I think there are significant statements Jesus makes that reveal his perspective on his own suffering. I invite you to consider what Jesus says before, during and after (in a manner of speaking) the Cross.

Prior to the Cross
First, Jesus anticipates his sufferings and resurrection (Mk 8.31; 9.30-31; 10.33-34; Mt 16.21-28; 17.22-23; 20.17-19; Lk 9.22-27). We repeatedly meet with Jesus’ prediction that “the Son of Man will be betrayed, suffer, die, and on the third day rise” (and similar phrases). It’s clear that Jesus knows he will be betrayed and murdered. He knows he will be handed over to religious scapegoating violence. There’s no surprise here. In addition, and importantly, he is as confident that he will be vindicated as he is certain that he will suffer and die.

Second, Jesus makes it clear that “No man takes my life from me. I lay it down. I take it up.” Not only does he know the game-plan, but he is quarterbacking the play. Some want to ignore or dismiss the implications of Jesus’ claim that he will raise up his own body, but it has to be taken into any account of what one takes Jesus to mean by the Cry. I suggest that at the very least this means Jesus decides to submit himself to be killed and that nothing done to him by others wrests his command of the narrative and meaning of his suffering from him. This in itself makes any deconstruction of the divine identity Jesus enjoys exegetically untenable.

Third, a passage of central importance for understanding how Jesus viewed his upcoming suffering is the Passover meal Jesus shares with his disciples the night before he was crucified (Mt. 26; Mk 14; Lk 22; Jn 13), a meal not taken primarily from the Levitical repertoire of blood sacrifices but from a meal commemorating God’s deliverance of Israel from captivity (a point which N.T. Wright develops at some length) and the re-establishment of covenant. The meal anticipated the Exodus. For the Jews of Jesus’ day it anticipated the renewal of covenant for Israel fully returned from exile. The symbols of bread and wine anticipate deliverance and fulfillment of the covenant not through the pouring out of wrath on Jesus. Much more could be said here. I’ll just suggest that the symbols within the context of the meal commemorating the Passover – the renewal of covenant – suggest Jesus has a perspective on his imminent suffering that is not related to the satisfaction of divine wrath, certainly nothing involving his being rejected or abandoned by the Father.

Fourth, though Jesus clearly believes he will be abandoned and forsaken by others, even his disciples, he does not believe the Cross is where his Father will forsake him. Jn 16.31-33 make this point explicit:

“Do you now believe?” Jesus replied. “A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me. I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

Besides explicitly declaring that his Father would be with him in his upcoming ordeal, Jesus’ point (Jn 16.33) is that how God would be with him on the Cross would ground his disciples’ own peace in their own upcoming afflictions. That is, how the Father would be with Jesus in his suffering is how the Father will be with them in their suffering – precisely the opposite point which interpreters make who view the Cry as expressing Jesus’ despairing belief that God had in fact abandoned him.

Lastly, add to these Jesus’ very human struggle in the Garden (Mt. 26; Mk 14; Lk 22) when he prays “If it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” Does this somehow negate his previously belief that death lies in his future? Is the doubt expressed in the Garden the beginning of a full blown dereliction of mind that overwhelms him on the Cross? That’s difficult to imagine. I’m not suggesting that no human doubt with respect to whether his death is necessary to fulfilling his mission is consistent. After all, Jesus is fulfilling human nature by offering it obediently to God in the very circumstances of finitude and suffering that define our journey. But in any event, those doubts are faced and settled upon in the Garden, and Jesus goes to the Cross resolved upon death as ‘the way’ and so has already integrated the certainty of death and suffering into his self-understanding.

My point is that this process doesn’t reduce Jesus’ sense of identity and mission to the despairing dereliction some suppose. Struggle? Yes. Deliberation? Yes. Facing death within the finite capacities of human nature? Yes. Having his deepest sense of self, identity, and mission deconstructed – essentially his mind blow – by the belief that his Father abandons and forsakes him? That isn’t a plausible reading of the texts.

These five sources of information from prior to Jesus’ passion suggest that Jesus’ understanding of the Cross had been forged over time and in the most intimate of conversations between him and his Father and represent Jesus’ belief that he has come to fulfill Israel’s calling and covenant history. He knows the what, the why, and the whence (resurrection) of his suffering to come, and his understanding of the Cross did not include “being alone” or “abandoned” by the Father. Those promoting divine abandonment, however, suppose that although Jesus anticipated the suffering of the Cross and its rejection, and knew he would be vindicated through resurrection, and although he believed the Father would be supportively present with him, this all comes unraveled in Jesus’ mind on the Cross as he ceases to believe it.

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On the Cross
Comments Jesus makes while suffering include:

“Father, forgiven them, for they know not what they do.”
“Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
“It is finished.”
“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
To Mary, “Woman, here is your son,” and to John, “Here is your mother.”

On the Cross Jesus has the presence of mind to connect his suffering purposefully to his mission and his identity as the Son beloved of his Father. He forgives sin, bestows eternal life, identifies himself as an innocent scapegoat, calls God his Father, has the presence of mind to care for his mother and John (Jn 19.26, which von Balthasar, interestingly, interprets as Jesus actually rejecting Mary as his mother in order to bring her into a participation of his own abandonment by God) confidently commits his spirit to his Father, and dies satisfied in the knowledge that his life’s mission is “finished” – that is, he continues throughout his passion to do what he sees the Father doing. This is perfectly consistent with the confidence he expresses prior to the Cross in what is to occur and what it will mean. Given what he says on the Cross, there is every indication that Jesus’ perspective on his own identity as the beloved of his Father and the success of his mission was not deconstructed or reduced to despair or dereliction by the intensity of his pain or by any internal perception or spiritual sensibility that God had abandoned him. He meaning-makes throughout his suffering without giving up any of this.

After the Cross
One post-resurrection passage that sheds light on Jesus’ interpretation of his own sufferings is Luke 24.25-27; 44-48 (his discussion with the two on the road to Emmaus):

He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.

He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”

Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.46 He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.

What’s interesting here is the absence of any explanation by Jesus of his cross in terms of abandonment or godforsakenness. The plan and purpose of his suffering is summarized as anticipated from betrayal to resurrection. One is justified, I think, in suspecting whether Christ believed the atoning moment of his suffering was the Father’s having abandoned him if prior to, during, and after his crucifixion Jesus never explains his sufferings in such terms but anticipates the Cross and behaves upon it in ways utterly incompatible with his thinking of himself in such terms.

What other post-resurrection statements (of Jesus or others) might shed light on Jesus’ view of his own Cross? I’ll mention these as food for thought without going into detail, but the resurrected Jesus says to Paul, “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9.4) What might this tell us about Christ and suffering? Anything? And what are we to make of Paul’s statement that he “fills up in his flesh what is lacking of the sufferings of Christ”? (Col 1.24) Does Paul anticipate entering into an experience of Christ’s passion means having God abandon him on some measure? That’s more than a hard sell. In Phil 3 as well Paul makes his inheritance of eternal life dependent upon his “participation in Christ’s sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” Are we to imagine this includes an experience of divine abandonment? Same point regarding Paul’s understanding of identification with Christ in his death through water baptism. And what of Heb. 12.1-3 which introduces “hope” as a defining motivation for Jesus’ ability to endure the Cross? How is that hope sustained alongside his believing himself to be forsaken by God? Then there are 2Cor 5.21 (“God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself”) and Gal 3.13 (Christ becomes a curse for us). All these passages are worth exploring at length, but they suggest that the integration into life of a believer’s identification with Christ’s sufferings are anything but an experience of sharing in Christ’s being rejected or abandoned by God.

Consider as well whether God really forgives sin if he pours upon Christ the “death consequences” we deserve. It would seem that rather than forgiving sin that God prosecutes it, for if Christ suffers the godforsakenness we deserve as the consequence of our sin, then God was in Christ counting men’s sins against them, which is just the opposite of what Paul says takes place in Christ. We suggest that to take passages like 2Cor 5.21 and Gal 3.13 as expressive of the truth of God’s perspective and motivation is to read God as scapegoating Jesus in mythological terms.

Paul cannot mean (2Cor 5.21) that Jesus literally becomes sin in an ontological sense, or that his human, created nature even is transformed literally into sin, for Paul credits this transformation to God. I think if we read Paul here in terms of the broader narrative of the gospel and in the context of Jesus’ own anticipations and convictions, Christ’s being made sin has to be read as God’s turning Jesus over to the violent, scapegoating mechanisms by which we (not God) identify the innocent victim with our sin and its consequences. God’s “making Jesus to become sin” is thus equivalent to God’s having Jesus become what we (not God) consider to be the divinely appointed mechanism by which our sin and violence are addressed – i.e., the scapegoat.

Same with Gal. 3. God didn’t curse Jesus and God isn’t of the opinion that whoever hangs on a tree is cursed of God. That’s Israel’s false belief and her own scapegoating, skewed perspective, not God’s. But God does give himself to it – i.e., to be treated by it, allowing it to exhaust its resources on him. But if it is not true that whoever hangs on a tree is cursed by God, how can God demonstrate this to be a false belief? He demonstrates it by hanging on a tree without being cursed (or abandoned) by God. Christ’s “becoming a curse” for us, then, is equivalent to Christ’s being treated by us in all the ways we identify with having been cursed by God, not because we’re right in believing God to curse the innocent victims we hang on trees, but precisely because we’re wrong, and so that we can be proved wrong, to have ever thought so.

Lastly, there is the question of the application of a proper understanding of the Cross for Christians who are suffering innocently. The Cross functions as an example of how Christians are to suffer, not how they are not to suffer because Jesus suffered. If the moment that defines Christ’s Cross is Jesus’ derelict belief that God had abandoned him, then it’s difficult to see how the Cross becomes an example for Christian suffering, for no NT writer promotes the view that Christians are called to suffer God’s abandonment of them. Quite the contrary (Mt 6.24f; Rom 8.31-39; Col 1.24; 1Pet 2.21; 4.12-19; Heb 12.2). But how does the Cross exemplify the promise to us of God’s sustaining presence in suffering if it’s true that the Cross is most fundamentally an embodiment of God’s abandonment of Christ in fulfillment of the death consequences of our sin? Hebrews 12.2 grounds Jesus’ ability to endure the Cross in a vision of the joy his suffering would result in, hardly the kind of perspective on one’s suffering that a derelict, God-forsaken mind would be capable of. But if Jesus has the joy-giving purpose of his death in mind, as the perspective from which he interprets his own suffering as he suffering, he can hardly think of himself abandoned by the Father.

We have in these competing interpretations of the Cry fundamentally different visions of the God-World relation and its relational, aesthetic, and moral dynamics. So as the Knight said to Indy, “Choose wisely.”

Not what you suppose

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Jesus’ Cry of Dereliction is shorthand for the entirety of Ps 22 for which it is the opening line. Psalm 22 is a scapegoat psalm about an innocent servant abandoned and persecuted by his contemporaries but not abandoned by God. For Christ to reference this particular psalm on the Cross is for him to say quite the opposite of what many take his cry, divorced from its context, to mean. Many see here evidence that the Son is in fact abandoned by the Father, that the crowds are right in believing God to have abandoned and forsaken him. For these, this abandonment of sacred scapegoating defines God to the nitty-gritty of triniarian deity itself, that God’s own experience of himself, his own trinitarian oneness, was shattered as God forsook God. Nothing in God was not defined by this separation.

This is theological madness, of course. Seen in its proper context (see Rikk Watts on the use of the Psalms in Mark’s gospel), Jesus’s cry says just the opposite. By calling upon Psalm 22, quite literally Jesus is declaring:

“I am not forsaken by God — as you all think! I have not been abandoned by God — as you all suppose. God will vindicate me, just like he did the innocent servant of Psalm 22! Wait and see.”

All Jesus needs to say in order to declare this is what he actually says, Psalm 22’s opening line. Resurrection proved Jesus right, of course. God is not on the side of the scapegoating crowd abandoning Jesus. That’s not the what the Cry is about. Where is the Father while Jesus is on the Cross? He is right where Jesus said he would be — “…with me.” (John 16.31-33). I only wish my own (evangelical) tribe believed it.

The happiest, most wonderful Resurrection Sunday to you all!

When you talk it gets light

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For friends I know who are in a dark place.

I promised a passage from Benner’s Presence and Encounter, which I’m presently (pun intended) reading. Just a paragraph or two:

Sigmund Freud tells the story of a three-year-old boy crying in a dark room of a home he was visiting one evening. “Auntie,” the boy cried, “talk to me! I’m frightened because it is so dark.” His aunt answered him from another room: “What good would that do? You can’t see me?” “That doesn’t matter,” replied the child. “When you talk, it gets light.” This child was not afraid of the dark but of the absence of someone he loved. What he needed to feel secure was presence. We all need the same; knowing presence is the ground of this basic sense of safety for all of us. (Emphasis mine)

A couple of pages later Benner adds:

Because humans are hardwired for presence, we will always be vulnerable to absence. Even Jesus knew this vulnerability. Nowhere was this more clearly expressed than in his cry of anguish from the cross when he sensed God having forsaken him. Jesus, like us, had to learn that the apparent absence of God is actually a face of the real presence of God. If the stable knowing of the presence of the one he called Father—the presence that so characterized the rest of his life—could be threatened at such a point as this, who are we to expect that we will ever be immune from such vulnerability?

Carefully then. I don’t really know Benner’s theology, specifically his Christology, well enough to draw any final conclusion from this. One could read him here as agreeing that the Son is abandoned by the Father in some absolute sense that rends the divine nature itself. That would not be a view I’d share. But one can also read him as affirming simply that the Father gives Jesus over to the same circumstances we universally associate with such abandonment. Why would the Father do that? As we’ve suggested: to demonstrate not that in Christ God becomes to the truth of our despair, but to expose that despair as illusory and false, to “talk to us in, or from, the dark.”

I suggest this is what the Cross is (among other things): God talking to us in/from the dark, a darkness we are afraid of but which Jesus faced on our behalf without surrendering (as we do) to the belief that the darkness can become all there is.

What does Jesus say of his immanent suffering? John 16:31-33 (which I’ve explored before):

“Do you now believe?” Jesus replied. “A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me. I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (Emphasis mine)

Crucial verses. On these I earlier offered:

That pretty much rules out the divine abandonment view. Besides explicitly declaring that his Father would be with him in his upcoming ordeal, Jesus’ point (v. 33) is that how God would be with him on the Cross would ground their own peace in upcoming afflictions as a consequence of his having overcome the world. That is, how the Father would be with Jesus in his suffering is how the Father is with us in ours.

Let us remind ourselves, lastly, of Hebrews 12.1-3, which describes Jesus as enduring the Cross, even despising its shame. What kind of presence of mind could possess such a perspective on such suffering as to despise its shame? If Jesus is despising the shame of the Cross, he’s not succumbing to its threatening narrative. “For the joy set before him” he endures. Permit me another quote from an earlier post:

“Enduring” can only describe some persisting feature of Jesus’ conscious experience which the Cross could not wrest from him or define away, some unsurrendered belief the truth of which constitutes the saving power of the Cross as such. What can this be but Jesus’ confident and unfailing belief regarding his deepest sense of identity and purpose and the sustained conviction that he would again celebrate the joy of its truth—the truth of who he was and why he came?

This is how I take Benner’s second quoted paragraph there, as warning us that we are not exempt from experiencing within the created ordering of things every possible evidence for the truth of our worst fear, namely, that we really are, or we can be, alone and abandoned. But Jesus, rather than becoming the truth of such despair, disarms the power of the darkness to impose such a narrative upon us and he talks to us from the darkness. And when he talks, it gets light because his talking is light.

A cry of dereliction?

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Jesus’ questioning cry “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” (MK 15.24|MT 27:47) is known in theological circles as the ‘Cry of Dereliction’ (of abandonment, rejection, or forsakenness). For now let’s call it ‘the Cry’. But frankly, to call the Cross the Father’s dereliction of his Son is already to have interpreted the Cross in a way (not only) we think not possible.

I ran across a post by Barth scholar Darren Sumner (from 2012) that considers the Cry. Sumner considers (but rejects) the possibility that Jesus is not rejected by the Father but that the Cry is an allusion to Ps 22 (which, by the way, doesn’t describe divine abandonment but reassurance in suffering). But I don’t want to engage Sumner’s post or the reasons for preferring a reference to Ps 22 here (though I’m convinced that’s what is behind Jesus’ words). I’m more interested in the comments section of Summer’s post. Among those comments you’ll find two responses, one by Nick Norelli. (His linked name there takes you to his blog, not to his comment on Summer’s post.) Do take advantage of reading Norelli’s response on Sumner’s post though. I’m tempted to reproduce the whole thing here, but it’s a blog post in itself.

After Norelli’s response, consider the response by a certain PD there in the comments section. Short and sweet, but good. I never picked up on the passage (John 16.31-33) he cites regarding the impossibility of thinking the Father actually rejects Jesus on the Cross:

“Do you now believe?” Jesus replied. “A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me. I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

That pretty much rules out the divine abandonment view. Besides explicitly declaring that his Father would be with him in his upcoming ordeal, Jesus’ point (v. 33) is that how God would be with him on the Cross would ground their own peace in upcoming afflictions as a consequence of his having overcome the world. That is, how the Father would be with Jesus in his suffering is how the Father is with us in ours.

I’ve also been reflecting on Heb. 12.1-3, a passage I’m convinced makes the divine abandonment view of the Cry impossible:

“Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider him who has endured such hostility by sinners against himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”

Now, juxtapose this description of Jesus’ experience of the Cross with the Cry. What do you sense?

The Cry is interpreted by many as describing the Father’s rejection of his Son. But the author of Hebrews believes Jesus “endured the Cross for the joy set before him.” What can it mean to say he “endured” the Cross? Clearly it can’t mean he “survived” the Cross. Why not? Because Jesus obviously didn’t survive the Cross. He died on it. So “enduring” the Cross has to mean something other than “surviving” it, something other than not dying on it. But if not survival, then what? (Never mind the additional comment in Heb 12 that Jesus “despised the shame” of being crucified, hardly a perspective one who believes himself a derelict rejected by God would be in a position to embrace.)

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“Enduring” can only describe some persisting feature of Jesus’ conscious experience which the Cross could not wrest from him or define away, some unsurrendered belief the truth of which constitutes the saving power of the Cross as such. What can this be but Jesus’ confident and unfailing belief regarding his deepest sense of identity and purpose and the sustained conviction that he would again celebrate the joy of its truth—the truth of who he was and why he came?

The “endurance” in question is thus the enduring belief in his identity as the Father’s Son and his mission as sent by the Father contrary to a world from which every evidence of the Father’s love and faithfulness had vanished. It meant maintaining that belief and defining his sufferings “from within a framework of meaning” the Cross could not deconstruct. To not endure the Cross would have meant allowing the Cross to define him out of his identity and purpose. It would have meant his believing about himself what those who crucified him believed about the crucified—that he was utterly forsaken of God. We suggest that it is Jesus’ enduring perspective on himself as beloved Son, as suffering purposefully in obedience to his Father and not as abandoned by him, in precisely those circumstances Jews believed were evidence of God’s having cursed him, that renders his suffering a saving act.