I want to begin with a little theology and even a little Latin (and in this case if you have some Spanish, that will work too). St. Thomas Aquinas, the maestro of all theologians, defined sin in this way: ‘distantio a Deo’, distance from God. We are not part of God, we are his creatures, but we were made to be close to him. He put us in a garden so that he could walk among us. You might ask: how are we capable of getting far away from the One who is everywhere? This is itself a hard question; distance is what we seek from him, though we cannot attain it, his presence torments us: listen to the psalmist;
‘if I ascend to heaven you are there
if I make my bed in Sheol you are there
if I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
eventhere your hand shall guide me and your right hand hold me fast
if I say surely the darkness shall cover me and the light around me become night
even the darkness is not dark to you
the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.’
The distance we place from God is ours, but it is real in its own way nonetheless.
The passage from psalm 139 mentions Sheol- the shadowy land of the gone. It also speaks of Gehenna , the pit, the garbage heap, was away from the holy city. It became the land of the dead, for dead was as surely distant from God as you could seem to get. At this point we see the first piece of the puzzle: when it comes to distance, sin and death are one thing. Both mean distancing ourselves from God: this is why the bible can say that the sting of death is sin. And both are not what we were made for, but both stand at the ready when we lapse from that fellowship and dependence on God for which we were made.
My God my God why have you forsaken me? Likewise in psalm 22 the sufferer approaches death, is surrounded by monsters, and his goods are divided: he is as good as dead. To be alienated, to be abandoned by God- this state too aligns with what we have said of death and sin.
Where is it that we imagine God to come from when he saves us? We do right to suppose it is from afar, from above in the bible’s language. He is beyond us in goodness, power, love, the greatest of mysteries we could in our minds never ascend to. In the modern style, we may think of God among us in the ordinariness of life, he saves us insofar as he is with us, in our midst, the ground of our being, said one famous theologian. But the cry of dereliction requires a harder reckoning. Our alienation is of a piece with our sin, and both head toward death, toward non-being. This is where we are headed, though even the words fail us as there is no ‘where’ in it. This place is anticipated by everything full of non-being and abandonment here. Intolerable guilt, the addicted, the orphaned, the horrendous crimes. Wherever you imagine God could not be.
This passage from Good Friday then, makes us think ahead to Holy Saturday. Then Christ, tradition tells us, harrowed hell. He descended into the place of the dead. This fits with the fact that in his death he had become sin who knew no sin, as Paul puts it. God journeyed to where there is not God. God crossed the distance to where humans are, are not, who try to distance themselves. Our minds balk- perhaps we fear that this would sully God, that one alone who is unsullied in this broken world. But that is the gospel- Jesus of ‘my God my God…’ is on his way across the river styx to the land of the dead. And if that is so, then he comes to save us from within and below us too, for he is already where we need to be saved from. It is worthwhile to sit for a moment with the full extent of this wonderful and terrible claim. Of course the tradition and you and I struggle with it: God died. The 1960’s played with the idea as a way of denying its reality. Of course God cannot die. But there is a reason the Lutherans saved this shocking sentence- for it is part of the good Friday gospel- it has a meaning which changes what we think humans are and what we imagine of God as well. He is not lowered, but his access, if you will, to us is expanded and brought closer than we imagine or are comfortable with.
Let us take one more step into mystery. When Jesus cried out and when Jesus died, a man cried and died, middle aged, Galilean. And we are saying that God under went these too. But there is also a tradition that God made the whole of the world in the beginning and the human race with it, and remade the human race in the form of one man, the new Adam, humanity itself, so that his death, says Paul, could in cleaving his body cleave our separation. Jesus was also humanity, and when he goes down we too go down, his alienation ours, since our sin is his, his death and ours connected and close by one another.
What then does all this mean to us as we struggle along in our Christian walk? First casts in another light the question: in that sad situation where was God? The gospel has taken that question and put it at the center of its claim. It has no answer since it is in whole and without exception an answer to that very question. Jesus Christ has been there. What could keep him now from there? What do we assume about God such that we suppose he wouldn’t be there. It means that the Gospel is the remedy for tragedy, but only root and branch. It addresses the problem of this broken world in tis totality. It also means that Jesus the new Adam the God-man has come permanently to dwell in the whole of life down to its rebellious and alienated roots. All are in his presence though some in refusal and denial, some forced to look says Zechariah on the one they pierced. There is still hell after Jesus descends but it now has to do with him.
Secondly this one verse changes how we see the trinity. It does not mean that one person of the trinity exiles and consigns another to punishment. It also does not mean that the trinity is some abstract formula of no interest to our lives. We now hear this hard verse in relation to the love of God, Father for Son. Abba, dear father, if this cup can pass…into your hands father…you in me and me in you…I am reminded of the wonderful painting of the prodigal son by Rembrandt. Jesus is here become the prodigal for our sake. The father embraces him, joyful, but his face down turned in suffering, the son’s pain more immediate to see. There is nothing dry and abstract about the trinity to one who has read the passion story.
Third and finally I want to consider what the cry of dereliction does to our way of conducting our Christian lives. There is not a helpless and doomed condition. They are all helpless and doomed conditions. There is not too down he went all the way down. And our ministering to the least is not our kindness but a sacrament of the land to which he went and where we are and are bound. In other words the cry of dereliction makes our sense of our situation more dire, so that the help we are offered is more
Here is something I want to work on in Lent: a sense of Jesus’ immediate access, his nearness to every one and every situation. The word is near that we are to ourselves, and so he who is at the center of the world’s suffering and at the right hand of God. I sometimes suppose that he has to summon into situations, and so we do in a way. But he is already there, deeper there than we can imagine.
And this sense also allows me to look at the radical evil of which I can make no sense. I allow us to ask the question about how God allows it in a new way, with the God we question not only above but in the suffering midst of the question. It allows me the grace to include myself in the wrong of which I ask- only on the rock of grace can we face such questions really. The cry allows us to ask questions- that aren’t impertinent or evasive, that are hard and true. And it makes us humble enough to listen from Jesus for the real answer, which is the final answer for which he is on the cross and now we await.