Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Why Did Jesus Die? (12) To be our Immanuel

He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were [our] faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. (Isaiah 53:3)

“Immanuel,” in Hebrew, means “God with us.” The Lord was not only with us, but was and is one of us. Born as one of us, He lived as one of us, accepting even hunger and thirst, fatigue and temptation. Now He also accepts torture and death, both to experience and to display complete solidarity with the human race. In fact, He accepts even to die as a criminal, between two real criminals.

He even, as a Man, shares the feeling sinners have of being lost and alone, which they interpret as being godforsaken. Quoting Psalm 22:1, He cries, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34)

We may rightly interpret this in several ways, for instance:

* that Jesus was praying the first words of the Psalm (which ultimately becomes a Psalm of victory)

* and/or that He was reminding the onlookers of that prophetic Psalm

* and/or that, humanly speaking, He was referring to God’s having let this happen

* and/or that He was sharing sinners’ experience of feeling lost and godforsaken

What we must not do, however, is suppose God the Father could ever in truth reject God the Son. That same Psalm 22, the one that begins with, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" later on (v. 24) tells us explicitly that from the Father's point of view, this did not actually happen.

For He has not despised nor abhorred
the affliction of the afflicted;
Nor has He hidden His face from Him;
But when He cried to Him, He heard.

When He cried to God (not later), God heard Him. Nor is it even possible that the Father should have abandoned the Son in the sense of turning away from Him in anger or disgust and separating Himself, for Father and Son share a single essence. Moreover they share a single, divine will, meaning if the Father had turned away from Him, the Son would also have had to turn away from Himself. Nor could the Father and the Son together be abandoning the human Christ only, for in Christ, humanity and divinity are united inseparably and without partition. Whatever is done to Christ is done to the Person, the Bearer of both natures.

So from God the Father’s point of view this forsaking did not happen. God, in His infinite love - infinite! knowing no limits - never forsakes anyone. He is sometimes said to give sinners up to uncleanness, as in Romans 1:24, or to give them over to reprobate minds, Romans 1:28; but in none of these cases is God abandoning anyone. He is allowing them to go their own way, abandoning Him. St. Paul also writes that God “delivered Him [Christ] up for us all…” (Romans 8:32) but again, this means He allowed wicked men to crucify Him. It emphatically does not mean, cannot mean, God somehow withdrew from His own, incarnate Self!

In fact, paradoxically, the fact that God never abandons anyone is the very point of Jesus’ cry -- for if, in His humanity, God shares even this, the existential loneliness of sinners, worse than death, then it is certain that God is with us forever in all things. Even in this, we are never abandoned. Christ died to share our human lot to the last, bitter dregs, and to redeem it. “Whatever is not assumed,” say the Fathers, “is not healed.” But Christ shares every single thing it means for us to be fallen human beings, except blame. (Hebrews 4:15)

He is with us always and in every way, as our beloved, our hope, our joy and consolation, in all sorrows, in all trials, even in death, even in our feelings of godforsakenness. In life and in death and beyond, He is our Immanuel, our God-with-us.

Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend into heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.
If I take the wings of the morning,
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there Your hand shall lead me,
And Your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, "Surely the darkness shall fall on me,"
Even the night shall be light about me;
Indeed, the darkness shall not hide from You,
But the night shines as the day;
The darkness and the light are both alike to You.
(Psalm 139:7-12)