Absconditus: God hidden, an Easter reflection
04/04/2021 § 1 Comment
There are times when God is hard to find. Isaiah 45 declares God a hidden God, even as the prophet names God the savior of his people. Mystics and theologians who emphasize the complete sovereignty, a radical otherness, of God have felt the power of the idea that God sometimes intentionally veils Godself from human perception. This defines a relationship in which humans are completely subject to an ultimately unknowable will, though on the whole the evidence is taken to suggest that God wills well to those who love this Divine Other. Thus, the hidden God may teach us lessons by Her absence as well as by Presence.
The Quaker journals (spiritual autobiographies) offer many examples of earnest ministers, whose meat and drink is to know God’s presence and leading as the root of joyful and laborious service, who have shorter or longer times of spiritual drought, when the sense of Presence is withdrawn. This is very often taken as a lesson in dependency, and a warning against pride or presumption.
Moreover, it is easy enough to say “He’s not there” when looking at history, where there are crimes and tragedies enough to make the idea of a benevolent Director of the Action seem ridiculous, or even harmful. Bad things happen to good people — and good things happen to bad people. This is not new, but the pain is felt freshly over and over.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ call to perfection comes with a startling challenge, by telling us that God’s love is such that the fundamental blessings of Creation are not withheld from anyone, no matter where we would put them on the scales of morality:
Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48)
The starkness of this is part of the mystery of Jesus and his experience of God. Hugh Barbour once wrote:
Jesus said that God saw, but did not prevent, the fall of a sparrow, and that the Tower of Siloam collapsed upon 18 men no ³worse offenders than all others living in Jerusalem²(Luke13) Yet he saw God¹s lack of judgment as God¹s love for each person, bird, and flower, and the power of it as the hidden Seed of the Kingdom. His ability to demonstrate this to outcast individuals and huge crowds shows how fully he must have known, even as the ultimate prophet, that a true prophet is called to embody the message he is given for God¹s people. For me, therefore, the Passion narrative beginning in Mark 8 and its center in the narrative of Gethsemane, is central to tryng to understand Jesus. He knew the final prophet had been rejected by God¹s people in their holy city on its holiest holiday.
And then Jesus died that death, and was buried like anybody else. What kind of a Redeemer, a Reconciler is this? The Powers of the World (that is, the world of human-created order, an order built on inequality and violence, beneath all the fruits of civilization), had proven too strong for the little seed cast by the side of the road. No wonder many followers of Jesus have needed to remake Him in imperial dress, and associate the shepherd and cmpanion of fisherfolk and outcasts with the structures of power that “the World” teaches is “the way it’s supposed to be.” Jesus couldn’t have meant all that stuff about love and mustard seeds and becoming like a child, and foot-washing?
Many are ashamed at the Lamb’s appearance, it is so low, and weak, and poor, and contemptible, and many are afraid seeing so great a power against him.(James Nayler, The Lamb’s War).
I have known cycles of doubt, in which, despite all the many blessings I have been given, and the love that I am surrounded with in marriage, family, and friends, the cold winds of a cosmic loneliness blow in through the cracks of my little house. At those times I can begin to taste the bereivement — “bereft-ness” — that Jesus’ friends were sitting with, In that empty upstairs room — empty though they were all gathered there, because there was no communion in their fear and sorrow.
When the women (the Marys) come to the empty tomb (in Luke’s account), one of the two witnesses in shining raiment (white like snow, as at the Transfiguration), says “Why do you seek the living one among the dead? It’s not here that he is, he has risen.” I share the disciples’ condition in this, too, that I have not gone all the way to the heart of what Jesus was telling them; still seeking the living among the dead. So how prepared was I to learn, when he demonstrated it, enacted the message which includes complete vulnerability to the terrible, mysterious forces amongst which we live, and the message, too, of God with us in the depths — the sign of Jonah?
John’s account makes it clearest, and maybe speaks Jesus’ heart: a hopeless Mary Magdalene turns from the enigmatic tomb, and runs into someone who simply and quietly gets her to explain her tears. When he listens, and then says her name, she recognizes the teacher, whom she cannot yet grasp — she is not ready, mere recognition is not enough. But the key is mutual recognition: Jesus acknowledges her (naming her in her particularity, like Adam naming in his garden), and she then can see him. That then is the beginning of a new journey, first in haste, and then in endurance, fed by the Life that escapes a stony grave. Thereafter, one can know the Presence, still as mysterious as the universe, by the kindling in the heart.
Discessit ab oculis, ut redeamus ad cor et inveniamus eum. “He withdrew from our sight, that we might return to our heart and find him.” Augustine Confessions 4:XII.