God is (Super) Dead: finding God in forsakenness
Holy Week is essential for most Christian denominations and sects. Similar to Christ’s own experience upon his entrance into Jerusalem, our eyes cannot help but look to the impending cross, and the hope found soon after. I think this is why I have witnessed so many conversions and rededications to the faith during Holy Week. Death has a way. The death of the God-Man beckons reflections on other deaths in our lives, whether it is the physical deaths of those we love or the other kinds of death that impact us so immensely.
A lot of ink has been spilled about God’s suffering with humanity. I believe there is a catharsis in this. Christ’s cry of dereliction, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is often read as our own cry—as if the original Psalm had the fundamental human experience in mind.
But a paradox seems to exist here, no? In the face of suffering and death, people find ultimate faith, as if there is also sovereignty within the forsakenness. But forsakenness implies a lack of presence, does it not? Hope is somehow grasped onto whilst one is immersed in hopelessness. There is something going on here psychologically I cannot quite articulate. The phenomenon seems logical, and yet, illogical all at once. Perhaps facing suffering sobers us in such a way that everything seems a little clearer.
How do we make sense of this paradox and sobriety theologically? I believe Christian theology does not only substantiate this paradox, but envelops it completely, keeping it constantly as a central focus. This happens in two ways:
First, Holy Week recapitulates Christ’s last week before his death—his entrance into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, and his death. Easter is a different part of the liturgical calendar, but it is indeed the same movement. We find hope in hopelessness because Christ’s death cannot be separated from his resurrection. If our eyes are looking to Christ’s suffering and death, the resurrection is always within sight as well. Liturgically, then, though we commemorate and allow room to thoroughly immerse ourselves in Christ’s passion, we cannot help but be struck by the sheer radiant hope of his resurrection.
The second way is the foundation for the first. God not only suffers with us as humans, but inherently has a sort of death within the Triune life. Taking seriously the thought of Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, the Trinity is a unity of distinct persons—it is the distinction of God as Father, Son, and Spirit that grounds the possibility of difference. But that difference and separation are all at once overcome in an eternal unity of sacrificial love. Balthasar states:
In giving himself, the Father does not give something (or even every- thing) that he has but all that he is . . . This total self-giving, to which the Son and the Spirit respond by an equal self-giving, is a kind of ‘death’, a first, radical ‘kenosis’, as one might say. It is a kind of ‘super-death’ that is a component of all love and that forms the basis in creation for all instances of ‘the good death’, from self-forgetfulness in favor of the beloved right up to that highest love by which a man ‘gives his life for his friends’. (Theo-Drama V, 84).
God’s very essence is understood as “kenotic,” self-emptying, in such a way that it is analogous to death. The Father’s “begetting” of the Son is a total handing over of self. It is a death of self to constitute another. Death, difference, unity, and love are all upheld within the Trinity. Balthasar goes even further in saying that all of existence is sovereignly held within the Triune life, including human freedom and the possibility to experience the forsakenness of death and suffering. To be clear, this does not mean God creates death or suffering; this is not about predestination or God experiencing death in such a way that God “changes.” Rather, the possibilities of finitude and creaturely freedom are given room to be within God. Important for Balthasar, however, is that God measures the depth of our forsakenness. It has already traversed, not just in the Trinitarian distinctions and unity of Persons, but in the crucifixion and descent of the Son to the grave on Holy Saturday.
Thus, Christian theology inherently holds together the tension of hope in the midst of hopelessness and presence in the midst of forsakenness. God holds all of these in tension within God’s self. Humans enact their freedom—for better or for worse—with the sovereignty of a God defined as love. We are comforted by God suffering with us—both on the cross and in Trinity’s self-emptying love. There is always presence in the experience of emptiness, and there is always the living God in death. We are encountered in the negative space of forsakenness.
This is how Holy Week, which spends so much time dealing with death and forsakenness, brings about so much hope. Resurrection cannot be bracketed from the tomb; the death we encounter is suspended within a self-emptying sovereignty whose essence is Love. Maybe in the death of Holy Week we see that though we often travel so far from God, God is always next to us, ready to usher a transformative encounter.
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