3. Living Within God's Story: The Missio Christianus (cont.)
Movement 3. Becoming the Godforsaken
The ultimate movement of redemptive suffering is Jesus’ death as the Abandoned One. Jesus’ greatest triumph over exile comes through his descent into godforsakenness and hell. Therefore, it is also a part of the missio Christianus to enter into, and experience, this place. Indeed, the lonesomeness of Jesus on the cross, which gives birth to the Church, should also stamp a particular characteristic of lonesomeness onto the Church. As von Balthasar suggests, the Church is first truly born when, from the cross, Jesus gives his mother to the disciple that he loved, and gives that disciple to his mother: “this is the assembly of two acutely abandoned people gathered around the Abandoned One… How could the birthmark of this origin not continually brand such a community!” Indeed, there is a sense that, even as we live within the movement of the overlap of the ages, we live within a time of abandonment and loneliness because Jesus has departed and ascended into heaven.
At this point, it seems to be a general inclination to think of “the dark night of the soul.” However, I want to maintain a certain amount of distance from that notion for three main reasons. First of all, the notion of the “dark night of the soul” is far too individualistic. The notion of godforsakenness that we are exploring has far more to do with corporate experiences of exile where God abandons people, not just one person. Secondly, the notion of the “dark night of the soul” is far too internal and otherworldly. The notion that godforsakenness is an internal experience that one has within one’s “soul” is not very useful when one tries to explore notions of exile that have to do with bodies, with economics and with socio-political issues. Here, we are speaking of the dark night of the family, the dark night of the community, the dark night of a nation, the dark night of a people. Finally, we are distancing ourselves from the notion of “the dark night of the soul” because we feel that the more biblical notions of exile, and Jesus’ descent into hell, are more accurate lenses through which to explore our movement into godforsakenness.
Just as with our reflections on cruciformity, so now we discover that Christians have been saved from hell so that they can follow Jesus’ footsteps and descend into hell. Following Jesus means passing through death and darkness. By the Spirit’s power, Christians participate in Jesus’ descent and this culminates in “being dead with the dead God.” Some have tried to argue that Jesus’ godforsakenness has put an end to godforsakenness once and for all but, given the preceding argument, Jacques Ellul seems to be more accurate when he argues that Christ and the cross do not put and end to godforsakenness but reveal “the ultimate possibility of this abandonment.” God’s out-of-exile people are called out of exile so that they can move into the deepest places of exile in order to bring exile to an end. Just as we are called to “take the pain of the world into ourselves and give it over to Jesus so that the world may be healed” so also we are called to take the godforsakenness of the world into ourselves so that those in the hells of exile might be able to discover Jesus there with them.
By fulfilling this movement into godforsakenness, Christians simultaneously fulfill the commission that Jesus gives to his disciples to go out making disciples, and the creation mandate within which humanity is told to fill the world. Instead of being cast out Christians are now sent out as God’s heralds. Instead of being scattered, Christians go forth to gather people into the body of Christ. Instead of being torn from the Holy Land, Christians are commissioned to go forth and claim the whole earth as God’s Holy Land. Thus, the movement of the people of God into exile actually manifests the way in which Jesus overturned the exile of Israel, of the nations, and of humanity.
To discuss cruciformity and the embrace of godforsakenness within a prolegomena to a narrative spirituality of mission is one thing. To actually go forth carrying a cross, to actually descend into the hells of this world, is quite another thing altogether. Such notions may sound like a noble romance or an exotic adventure -– until one actually begins to experience such things. When one actually begins to experience places where God is absent and silent, when one experiences pain and sees one’s loved ones experience pain, such illusions are quickly dispersed. One quickly realizes that to be godforsaken with the godforsaken means journeying into a very real, and very devastating state of brokenness. This is not romantic, it hurts too much. This is not noble, it is too ineffective. This is not an adventure, it is a nightmare.
When Christians begin to come to these conclusions they can be certain that they are located where the Church should be –- in the depths of exile -– and, although it may seem impossible, they must remain in those places. Furthermore, Christians must absolutely refuse to manipulate or create the type of salvation that they claim can only come from God. Christians go forth proclaiming the salvation won by Jesus and, like Jesus, rely entirely upon God to bring that salvation to pass. The Christian movement into godforsakenness is, therefore, not a fundamentally pragmatic movement -– it is a movement entirely dependent upon God’s grace. Having observed how false saviors, and human attempts at salvation, consistently degenerate into further violence, as the oppressed go on to become the oppressor, Christians must rely entirely upon God for salvation. As is suggested in Isaiah, those who try to create fire through which to see and be saved, only ever end up burning themselves. It is God’s faithful servant who walks steadfastly into the darkness trusting entirely to God for salvation. The key characteristic of the servant is faithfulness, not relevance, pragmatics, or success as it is defined within the market economy.
Therefore, those who journey into godforsakenness will be defined by three actions: hoping, waiting, and crying out. Hope, so regularly neglected within the dialogue of comfortable Christian churches, is absolutely essential to Christian living and must be recovered. Of course, until Christians journey into cruciformity and godforsakenness, hope will be marginalized. When one is comfortable, when one is (mostly) satisfied, or when one is simply too busy to deal with other things, hope plays only a minor role – being mostly focused on the hope of “heaven.” However, once one journeys into places of pain, brokenness, and great discomfort, hope must become central; for, without hope, one cannot remain in those places. Hope is, as Jacques Ellul says, “an absurd act of confidence.” It is the affirmation that the God who is not with us, is no God at all. Hope, as Dan Bell Jr. argues, is “a wager on God.” The God who remains silent cannot be the God of the biblical narrative. Therefore, hope in places of godforsakenness borders on blasphemy. It rejects God’s silence and absence. In the provocative words of Ellul, hope says: “I summon you [God] not to be an idol, not to act like a false God, since I know that you are God. I summon you to speak, since you are the Word.” Furthermore, hope realizes that it is exactly our movement into exile that is the proof of God’s proximity. Secondly, just as the servant who walks into darkness, refusing to light his own fire, God’s hopeful people refuse to take matters into their own hands. They wait for the Spirit to come, they wait for the Word to speak, they wait for the Father to act. They are a people who have “bet their whole lives” on God’s promises, and they wait in expectation of the fulfillment of those promises –- realizing they cannot fulfill the promises themselves. Finally, God’s people who become the godforsaken are a people who cry out. Like Jesus (and the Psalmist) they cry: “Our God, our God, why have you forsaken us?” knowing that God will respond to that cry by coming with the power of the resurrection. Like Israel in slavery, they cry with groans that reach to heaven, knowing that God will “hear,” “see,” “remember,” and “come down” to bring an end to exile. Like all creation that still groans, they situate themselves at the groaning-places of the world and direct that groan to heaven, knowing that the Spirit takes up that groaning, and makes it salvific. The groanings and the tears of God’s people will persist for until the day when God is all in all. Of course, this waiting, hopeful, painful cry, that appears to border on blasphemy, is actually a cry of worship, for it recognizes that everything depends on God – it is a grabbing hold of God and refusing to let go. It is the kind of cry that only the people who live within God’s story can make, for the people who live within God’s story are those who remember what God has done and what God has promised to do.
Thus, by moving into the deepest places of exile and godforsakenness, by descending into hell, God’s Spirit-empowered cruciform people complete their participation in the mission of the Son. Marvelously, because this is the fulfillment of that mission, this is also the place where God’s people are most fully revealed as God’s true humanity. Shockingly, God’s people, when they move into places of godforsakenness, become, like Jesus, the fullest revelation of the Father and his glory! Christians become godforsaken so that they can become the Father.
Hans Urs von Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale, and Prayer.
Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline.
Dan Bell Jr., Liberation Theology after the End of History: the refusal to cease suffering.
Jacques Ellul, Hope in Time of Abandonment.
Michael Gorman, Cruciformity: Paul's Narrative Spirituality of the Cross.
Jurgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ.
N. T. Wright, The Crown and the Fire.