God never forces open the doors if shut against him.
For this self of ours has to attain its ultimate meaning…
not through the compulsion of God’s power
but through love,
and thus become united with God in freedom.
Probably the most chilling moment for me in the telling of the story of Jesus’ death is how Matthew and Mark report that Jesus cries out from the cross, Eli, Eli, lama sabachtani––“My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” Both Matthew and Mark say that right after saying these words, Jesus then lets out a loud cry, a kind of primal groan. These words are of course from Psalm 22, and I’ve heard various explanations as to why Jesus says them. In the Matthew and Mark the crowd thought he was actually calling on Elijah. One explanation I heard was that Jesus was just saying the prayers that a devout Jew would say as he was dying. Bede Griffiths explained it by saying that even Jesus’ own image of God was taken from him, all his ideas about God, a similar kind of death that we have to undergo in our prayer lives as we let go of all names and forms that we hold on to for comfort. But I think there is an even more chilling, literal, scriptural explanation for Jesus saying these words––and that is that the Father does really abandon Jesus!
The Greek word paradidonai appears quite a few times in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ death. It means basically “to hand over or to betray.” So Judas hands Jesus over to the temple guard, the temple guards hand him over to the Sanhedrin, the Sanhedrin hands him over to Pilate, and Pilate hands him over to be scourged and finally to be crucified. But the ultimate betrayer of Jesus, the one who has really “handed Jesus over” isn’t Judas or the high priests or the Sanhedrin or Pilate or the Romans; it’s God the Father. God abandons Jesus to this event. His Abba, the one whose love Jesus had spent his whole life preaching about––Look at the birds of the air, learn from the flowers of the field! Blest are the poor in spirit!––hands him over to as humiliating and torturous of an experience as a human being could have, as scripture says, God did not spare his only Son. That’s why those other lines from Psalm 22 are so poignant: He trusted in the Lord, let him save him and release him if this is his friend. But God doesn’t save him or release him from this horrible experience.
Of course the real horrible news about all of this is that if God abandoned Jesus, if God does not save Jesus from all of this, where does that leave us? Could it be that God will and does abandon us too? Even good Christian women get sexually assaulted, advocates for peace and justice get assassinated, and tens of thousands of people get killed or washed out to sea in an earthquake and a tsunami for no sin or wrongdoing. My God, my God, why have you abandoned us? I keep remembering a couple of scenes from the movie “Of Gods and Men,” that tells the story of the French Trappist monks in Algeria who decided not to abandon their monastery during a civil war even though they knew they were facing probable death. The youngest monk, Christophe, is the one who is the most afraid of what probably lies ahead, and one powerful scene shows him praying in his cell, absolutely terrified, saying over and over again, “Aides-moi, aides-moi–Help me! Help me!” Sheer terror. Not only is his body about to be destroyed, psychologically he has been brought to the edge, to the limit of his strength.
We––or at least I––still have a tendency to think of prayer as magic, that God is the Wizard of Oz and we are like Harry Potter. But in actuality our bodies and even our souls do not always get spared––God abandons us to the wiles and ways of creation. What Jesus has experienced is a total destruction of his body and perhaps a total destruction also of his psyche, his ego, his whole mental complex. But there is something deeper to us than our bodies and our souls: our real Self (I write this with a capital “S” as Indian sages and Jungians would), our real Self that is something hidden––with Christ––in God. That’s what cannot be destroyed, annihilated. There is something about us that is deeper than our bodies and beyond even our souls––our real Self.
There is a beautiful teaching of Rabindranath Tagore from his book Sadhana that speaks about this, this realm, this part of us beyond our physical and mental organism, which, he says, “the great King of the universe has not shadowed with his throne.” In our physical being, in our mental being, we have to acknowledge the rule of something beyond us, the intractable laws of nature. But this deepest part of us God has left free, even free to disown God. And Tagore says that it is only in this region that anarchy is permitted; it is only in this realm of our being that “the discord of untruth and unrighteousness can hold its reign.” This is ultimately the region of our will. It is there, in our real Self, that God has actually withdrawn his commands, for there God comes to court our love not command it. God’s “armed force, the laws of nature, stand outside its gate,” Tagore says, “and only beauty, the messenger of God’s love, finds admission within its precincts”; and it is there that God must win an entrance, where God comes as a guest, not as a king, and where God has to wait to be invited.
... and things can come to such a pass that we may cry out in our anguish, “Such utter lawlessness could never prevail if there were a God!” Indeed, God has stood aside from our self, where his watchful patience knows no bounds, and where [God] never forces open the doors if shut against him. For this self of ours has to attain its ultimate meaning… not through the compulsion of God’s power but through love, and thus become united with God in freedom.
It’s only there that we are really free. What has felt like God abandoning us has been actually God withdrawing, God standing aside, waiting to be invited. It’s at that moment when we must invite God in. Every other aspect of our being is subject to intractable rules and laws, but here, in the deepest part of our being, we are free. What will it take for us to find that aspect of our being?
There is another line from the Psalms that Luke tells us that Jesus uttered on the cross just before he dies, from Psalm 31: No one can take my life from me, I give it freely. Now as he dies, that’s the moment when he hands over his spirit and thus becomes pure vessel of the Spirit, or as the letter to the Hebrews puts it, that’s when and why he becomes the source of salvation. As old Brother Luc says in the movie: “I’m not scared of death. I’m a free man.” That’s the moment he hands over his spirit, and becomes pure vessel of the Spirit. In this region of self that anarchy is permitted, Brother Luc does not let anarchy come in. In that moment praying in anguish in his cell, Brother Christophe is choosing to believe that there is something else, beyond his body and beyond the limits of his own mind, and he calls out to That in his anguish and invites the Sacred Guest in. In this realm of his being where “the discord of untruth and unrighteousness can hold its reign,” he ultimately does not allow it to hold its reign. That’s the moment he delivers over his spirit and becomes a pure vessel of Spirit. Later in the film there is another long shot of him praying before the altar just as the morning sun is rising, and it is very subtle but you can see slowly, slowly his face eases and the hint of a smile appears on his face, as that which is beyond his body and beyond his soul makes itself known to him. Now he too is no longer scared of death; in his spirit, he is a free man. He’s found his spirit and becomes pure vessel of Spirit.
This is why the saying goes that "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the faith," because when we hand ourselves over we surrender our spirit and thus become pure vessels of the Spirit. We are the seed that falls unto the ground and dies and thus yields a rich harvest. It’s not our place to know what that harvest will be. I myself would like to believe that the body even in this life in some way shares in the transformation brought about by the spiritual life and that this is the lesson of the Transfiguration, the Resurrection and the Ascension, the triumph of the flesh––and that maybe we will even experience a kind of physicality in it all as literal interpreters of scripture would have us believe. At least we all like to believe that our souls will in some way live on as an essence, a kind of ghost or angel or presence. Truth is, we simply do not know what kind of existence is beyond death. It’s not our place to know what that harvest will be, but the Resurrection tells us only to have hope that there will be a harvest, that something will grow from our lives being handed over. As Paul tells us in his great discourse about the resurrection, what is sown is corruptible––our bodies and our souls––what is raised up is incorruptible. Our bodies and our souls are the seed that falls onto the ground and dies; the harvest is a great mystery. It’s not our business to know what it is exactly that is raised up, our job is only to believe that if we fall to the ground and die, something of the essence of us will live on, and that life will continue and we will have been and will still be a part of it. It’s not our business to know what that part is––if we will live on in a song or a sermon, in a building or a grandchild, in inspiration or something more concrete––our job is to hand over ourselves to the hands of the divine, to invite the Sacred Guest in, and thus to deliver over our spirit––even now––and so become pure vessels of the Spirit––even now. That’s the promise and fruit of Jesus’ Resurrection.