Gazing into the Abyss of God-forsakenness

“God is dead.”
Friedrich Nietzsche

On this Holy Saturday, the strangest of days, Nietzsche’s famous declaration in fact rings true. On this one day of the year, the God of the Universe is dead. True, God is eternal and could never die in His divinity. But yesterday, Jesus Christ, God Himself made flesh, was brutally tortured, publicly humiliated, and killed on a cross, after yelling aloud in exasperation, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)

How are we to make sense of this great mystery? Have we somehow made peace with the fact that God, the author of life Himself, breathed His last and died? How is this even possible? Did Christ’s death on the cross separate Him from God the Father? Did God truly forsake Himself at this hour of crisis on the cross?

These questions do not admit simple solutions. No amount of contemplation or equivocation could ever exhaust the depths of the events we commemorated yesterday. But perhaps, through the grace of hindsight, we might be able to grasp one aspect of the meaning and purpose of this crucifixion.

God, in His infinite mercy, seeing the misery and desolation of our self-inflicted sinful state, did not withdraw from humanity, washing His hands of our messiness. Rather, in His scandalous humility, He deigned to draw ever closer to us; becoming one of us in the person of Jesus Christ, taking upon Himself the messiness and ugliness of our fallen human nature and transforming it, giving us the gift of His own Divine life. He condescended into the ordinary, being born as an immigrant in a manger, spending His infancy as an exile in Egypt, and working as a carpenter in Nazareth, sanctifying these ordinary things and making them holy. Furthermore, just as God Himself is limitless, so too His humility knows no bounds, and He would not rest until He had descended to the very depths of human misery and taken upon Himself every aspect of our sufferings and struggles.

In this way, Divine Providence and Love prompted Christ to descend to the very depths of God-forsakenness for our sake. And indeed He reached the very end of our God-forsakenness in His passion and death. In dying on the cross for us, He took upon Himself all of our sins. In His suffering and agony, He took upon Himself all of our worst pains and burdens. In His seemingly agnostic cry on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He took upon Himself all of our religious doubts, all of our skepticism, all of our fears and worries, and sanctified them by His presence. No longer are we alone in our skepticism, our sufferings, and our troubles. Christ is there with us. No longer are our sufferings in vain, but if we unite them to Christ, they can sanctify the world. No longer are we God-forsaken.

In his time, knowingly or not, Nietzsche spoke of this very abyss of God-forsakenness into which Christ descended, saying

He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.

Nietzsche felt the gaze of another emanating from the abyss, but he was wrong about its source. When we gaze into the abyss, it is not the abyss that gazes back. It is the face of Christ. It is not the abyss that arrests our gaze. It is the light of Christ shining from its depths. For Christ was not swallowed up by the monstrosity of death to become a monster Himself, but to transform the monster into the majestic lion that is His salvific victory over death.

For two thousand years, the Church has been echoing this chorus, singing of God’s victory and His marvelous condescension into our God-forsakenness. In our own time, Pope Francis is reminding us to bring the light of Christ to the margins, to the limits of God-forsakenness in modern society. In Nietzsche’s time, a great Doctor of the Church, St. Therese of Lisieux, was singing this same song through her Little Way. While Nietzsche was declaring himself a superman, Therese was making herself low, following Christ in His humility and condescension and quietly sanctifying the world with His love. And how different modernity would be if Nietzsche had listened to and imitated her song!

So, today let us stop and mourn. Let us stop and weep. For the God of the Universe, our only hope, has been slain by the world. Let us beat our breasts and do penance, for it was our wretchedness that slew Him. But let us not allow our grief to turn to bitterness, or our sorrow to turn to sadness. For now we are not alone in our doubts and God-forsakenness. Now, God is with us, in the midst of all our anguish, toil, and strife. He is here with us, offering His rod and staff for comfort and His own blood as our Heavenly drink for the forgiveness of sins.

And lo, as night falls upon us, “something strange is happening.” Now, the work of recreation is finished, and we can hear in the distance a certain rumbling, a holy harrowing. Let us sleep in peace tonight, knowing that God is with us, and tomorrow will dawn a “yet more glorious day.”

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