23 April 2010

Don Porcella, In Memoriam

Don Porcella (2nd from right) with Thomas Malanca (d. 24 Dec 2008) far right, Aggie Malanca (center), Mary Jo Brady (front left), and Bill Johns (behind Mary Jo) outside the chapel at St Perpetua's where he worshipped several times a week.

Wednesday night, April 21st, 2010, Don Porcella died from a long and courageous struggle with cancer. Don had been home from the hospital just a few days, knowing that there would be no further treatment; he died quietly shortly after 10:00 pm. His family had spent the evening with him, and friends/parishioners had been able to be present in the 24 - 36 hours preceding the death to say goodbye.

I had only known Don for a little more than four years (far too short a time!), but he will remain one of the most unforgettable, genuinely inspiring persons I carry in my heart. Don was a Catholic Christian, a husband and father, a scientist (an environmental engineer whose PhD was in environmental health), Fullbright Scholar, professor, and an amazing (and prolific!) potter as well. All of these dimensions of his life came together for me in the imagery of the verse from John 7:37-38: [[If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me as the scripture has said, 'Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.' Now this he said about the Spirit, which those who believed in him were to receive. . .]]

In his professional life Don studied rivers and lakes and developed methods for assuring their health and vitality, as Father and husband, friend and fellow Christian he was indeed a source of living water which flowed abundantly and generously from his heart. He listened, encouraged, nurtured and loved others into greater wholeness and fruitfulness. As a potter Don molded the very clay of the rivers, lakes and world he studied into amazing pieces, creating beauty out of more primal beauty. Don was always a scientist and perhaps the best that science has to offer our world. It is so common today for scientists to compartmentalize their lives so that science rules out faith or at best allows some superficial nod to religion. But not so with Don. His faith was deep and critical (and so, unceasingly curious and questioning), and his scientific work and critical approach to reality was faithful (and so, reverent, and lovingly intelligent). He had worked at and managed to integrate what for others would have been merely disparate aspects of a less genuinely intelligent life. In Christ all this came together in a humanity symbolized in the very pottery he made --- a vessel for God's own spirit and life, an earthen vessel from which flowed living water in abundance.

I will miss Don very much, his mind, his humor and impish (or perhaps roguish) grin, his slow and thoughtful speech, his gentle, generous, and loving heart, but I am very grateful to have shared in his life, and to be able to celebrate his eternal life and continuing presence in Christ.

Services will be at St Perpetua's: Vigil 7:00 pm Monday 26.April
Mass of Christian burial, 10:30 am Tuesday, 27. April

15 April 2010

Death as an Illusion?

The day before yesterday along with the pastor and pastoral associate from my parish I attended a workshop based on a relatively new book, The Hidden Power of the Gospels, by Alexander Shaia, PhD (clinical psychology). It was a good experience and the book is at once interesting and problematical. Some of the work was genuinely brilliant: historical accounts and details which contextualize the Gospels in ways which make them come alive with a fresh and compelling power, psycho-spiritual insights which illuminate the texts in new ways and lead to wonderful homiletic possibilities, the ability to address a wide audience despite a lack of theological training on their part, etc --- all of these are remarkable. However when the book had weaknesses (often rooted in these very same strengths!), they tended to be significant whether matters of flawed Scripture approaches, theological positions which were unnuanced or simply apparently unconsidered, or pastoral weaknesses stemming from these.

Several stood out, but one in particular raised questions, concerns and outright objections which were more profoundly affecting and emotional than the others. (For me this was underscored by finding out yesterday that a good friend of mine is dying!) Relatively fresh from a reportedly wonderful celebration of Easter, a celebration which included the chant: "Death is no more, Death is no more!" Dr Shaia looked at the Gospel of John (the only Gospel read during the early Church's Triduum) and reiterated several times, "Death is an illusion!" "Death is an illusion." And he continued, "How differently we would live if only we saw the real truth, that Death is no more, Death is an illusion." Shaia's unfortunately unqualified assertion did not go unchallenged, not only on the basis of the Gospel of John, but on the basis of Mark's and Paul's theologies as well as the pastoral experience of clergy and religious present. However, despite the proposal that this workshop was to allow for and be part of an ongoing discussion, it was not really the appropriate venue for someone from the audience outlining either the theological or the pastoral reasons such exaggerated claims were inappropriate --- even, or maybe especially for an Easter faith.

Of course neither is this the venue for doing that in any detailed way. A couple of weeks ago I reprised an article on Ministering to the Dying and Bereaved which was originally published in Review For Religious. That remains a good outline of the responsibility we have to be honest about both Jesus' victory over death, and the remaining victory which must still be achieved (by God) if God is to be all in all. As I wrote in that article, Godless death has been transformed through Jesus' obedient death and is now a more natural transitional event where we will meet God face to face. God has been victorious over sinful Godless death. He has actually taken that death into himself and not been destroyed in the process. However, death in this schema is not an illusion; it is both defeated and still with us. It is for this reason that Paul, who has noted the real "sting" of death is sin (that is, alienation from God), says exultantly, ". . .death where is thy sting?" --- an affirmation that in Christ Godless or sinful death is no more, but death as transition remains until God is "all in all".

Another point I made in that article was that death is not only something that overcomes us from without, but that it is also something that exists within us and has an affect on every dimension of our lives. As we ally and align ourselves with the powers of sin and death in this world we are changed, spiritually, emotionally, psychologically and even physically. In fact, sin and death gain more power, greater influence and malignancy in our world through these choices of ours. Despite Godless death being destroyed and a more natural or transitional death replacing it and still not having the last word, it remains a serious "dialogue partner" in our everyday lives. To treat death as an illusion neglects the very real dialogue which is still going on (and in fact SHOULD still be going on) in every human life.

This last is true because there is a positive dimension to this dialogue, a positive way of thinking about and treating with death which is especially important in rejecting the notion that death is an illusion. It involves the sense that death is an event in which we make a final decision for or against God, for or against our truest selves, for or against the Kingdom of God. Death involves a passive dimension and does indeed come upon us, often without warning, but even then we believe that death involves a final decision, that is, death is an event in which we are active participants in this positive sense as well. Death faces us with our finitude, as well as with our attachments to things which hold us here. It represents a liminal event, a boundary event which signals and illlumines the forms and various degrees of detachment we still must achieve.

The other side of detachment is attachment, and death serves to signal and illumine failures in attachment to the God who grounds and unifies all reality. It confronts us with our own lack of openness to complete dependence upon God and is the event in which obedience can be genuinely enlarged or deepened. In this sense death has a salutary role to play in our lives, and this is true whether we are speaking of the smaller deaths which mark each day or our final death this side of eternity. Beyond all this, death remains the event in which, meeting God face to face, we make a final decision and entrust ourselves to God --- or refuse to do so. Granted this dimension is ordinarily beyond anything people attending us actually can witness, but it remains a piece of the very definition of death as a human event.

We resist death. We think in terms of other people's death --- death is inevitable but not for me! One of the real lessons of Christianity and a life of prayer is the lesson of death's reality. We are Christians, not Christian Scientists or Platonists! In prayer we affirm life, but while we do that we also experience the process of dying to self and prepare for the final decisions of Death itself. We do not fear death in the way we might apart from what was achieved in the Christ Event, and we do not approach death as those for whom it has no meaning, but we do NOT treat it as an illusion --- precisely because we do believe in the resurrection! After all, it is bodily resurrection of the dead as well as a victory over Godless, sinful death.

10 April 2010

Surrexit Christus, Cantate Domino!

Well, this is a little late, but all good wishes to everyone for this Easter Season! I am in the midst of recovering from what is fast becoming an annual post-Holy-Week event --- a bout of bronchitis, so I have not been writing much -- or doing much (literal) singing, despite the antiphon heading this post! However, I am truly fine, and am merely sorry not to have been able to share regarding the Triduum, or to have wished you all a Good Easter sooner than this!

02 April 2010

A Theology of the Cross (Reprised)

Ministering to the Dying and Bereaved: Proclaiming a God Whose Power is Made Perfect in Weakness. Initially published in Review For Religious, January 2001

Death, and God’s relation to death is an overarching theme in human life, and certainly in the life of the Church. During Lent, for instance, we spend an entire forty days preparing to celebrate Christ’s victory over “sin and death.” During this season and others, images of these hostile forces, references to chaos, meaninglessness, and our bondage to all of them surround us. And in light of this, if there is anything we understand, (or should understand!), it is that these things are “the enemy.” During this time, for instance, we read in the Old Testament again and again that our basic choice, the really fundamental option that faces us in all of life’s moments and moods, is “choose life, not death;” and we know that these alternatives are not equivalent. After all, one is “of God” and the other is not. One is a choice for being, integration, re-creation, and meaning, while the other is a choice for diminishment, disintegration, destruction, and senselessness. One is the choice to respond to and fulfill the profound vocation to authentic existence spoken by God deep within us, while the other represents the repudiation of this summons and the rejection of our truest selves. One is, ultimately, a choice for an eternity in communion with the God who authenticates and completes us, the God who is the ground and source of life and meaning, while the other is the act by which we embrace the powers and utter emptinesses of hell.

At this time of the year in particular, we examine our lives for signs that they are marked and marred by our own alliances with sin and death, and we participate in a more focused way than usual in activities which reject such alliances, and are geared towards breaking the bonds established between us and them. We make the concerted effort to acknowledge, “we are dust, and shall return to dust,” that death is something that threatens us not only from without, but that it is also something that we carry around within us. And of course, we affirm and celebrate that for our sakes, and in opposition to our misguided, misbegotten alliances, God’s own Son has dwelt amongst us, implicating the One he called “Abba” into the whole panorama of our fragile, flawed, finite, and mortal existences, ---- up to and including his altogether humanly contrived, and godforsaken death on a Roman cross.

We observe Holy Saturday as the day when sin and death have triumphed. On this day there is no Savior, no Church, no Sacrament, and no Gospel. There is nothing to celebrate or proclaim. There is neither hope, nor freedom, nor real future. Sin and death are the apparent victors, and the present is as empty and forlorn as the desolate plaint of the enfeebled and failed messiah, whom we heard cry out from the cross just the day before. On this day we recall the original disciples --- broken by disappointment, grief, guilt, and shame, and stunned to terrified silence when the powers of the world overcame the One they called “Christ.” Their shattered hope for the definitive coming of God’s reign, and the ignominious, apparently unvindicated death of the man Jesus, stands at the center of our vision as well on this day. And in the shadow of this recollection, the bleakness of a world dominated by a power that regularly opposes and subverts the work of the Author of Life is clear. On this day, our entire horizon is death and the victory it has achieved over God’s Son, over us, and over our world.

In light of all this then, how is it we still hear from those engaged in pastoral ministry to the dying and bereaved for instance, that God is either the “author of death,” or it’s agent, or that anyone’s death (with the single exception of Christ’s own) is “God’s will”? How is it, with all the scriptural and empirical evidence otherwise, our ministers and faithful continue to present death as something other than the implacable enemy of life and the God who authors life? How is it that death is conceived of as other than an entirely alien and antithetical element in our existence, which God works continually and indeed, suffered greatly, to defeat --- an element that remains only on sufferance until “(God) is all in all”? How is it possible to hear from faithful who have been told that “God is the Lord of life and death,” that this must mean that when death intervenes, it is “God who KILLS us”? Yet, blunt and apparently absurd as this last formulation may sound to us, it is merely the clear spelling out of the implications of a flawed theology which considers death the event WITH which God punishes sin and calls us to judgement, rather than the hostile power he conquers, and the event IN which he intervenes in Christ, to raise us to eternal life.

Whether we are ministers trying to assist others with their own deaths, pastors comforting the bereaved, or simply persons who are trying to make sense of the reality of our own mortality, all too often we are burdened with vague, ill-defined, and even erroneous notions of death and the relationship between God and death. The situation is complicated by misreadings and distortions of Paul’s theology of the cross, and by fundamentalist interpretations of the creation narratives of Genesis. It is likewise made more difficult by anachronistic conceptions of the human being which see him/ her in terms of a body-soul dualism, as well as by simplistic notions of the sovereignty of God. The result is quite simply an inadequate theology that makes genuinely Christian ministry to the dying and bereaved difficult or even impossible, and caricatures God as the author of tragedy and absurdity in the process.

It seems to me therefore, that we must make a serious effort to correct our misconceptions of death, its relation to sin, and especially the relation of God to death. After all, how in the world are we to adequately celebrate God’s own triumph OVER sin and death, if we misunderstand these realities and posit God as their author? How can we make sense of the fact that God willed the suffering and death of his only begotten Son if we understand these realities as something God had complete control over in the first place? Are we really stuck with Anselm’s satisfaction theory, for instance, and the parody of God and God’s justice it is based on? And are we left only with the option of telling the dying and bereaved to whom we minister that “this is the will of God” or do we really have better answers at our disposal? Obviously, I am convinced there are far better answers available to Christians, and it is my intention to explore some of them, and their theological foundation, in this essay.

Common Misunderstandings of the Nature of Death

There are two basic misunderstandings regarding death and God’s relation to death, which seem to me to burden most Christians. The first is the notion that God is in COMPLETE control of human existence, and that because death is a part of that reality, this must mean that he is in complete control of it as well. There are various versions of this notion: “(Death) is God’s will;” “ Death is the way God punishes us for our sin” (especially original sin); “Everything that happens has a purpose;” “God gives and God takes away;” etc. Most often we hear versions of this theology from homilists and ministers trying to encourage us that God is omnipotent, and that everything that occurs, no matter how apparently senseless, is meaningful. We also hear these interpretations from ministers who believe that by affirming death is in God’s hands, by affirming it as the event WITH which he calls us home, for instance, some of the fear and sting of either dying, or bereavement is removed. Clearly, we sense that death is easier to bear if it is not simply perceived as an alien and hostile element in human existence, particularly if we can hear that it really isn’t the entirely senseless event it so often seems to be. In the meantime, however, we repress the serious theological questions such affirmations raise: Is all death and dying sent by God? Is God really their author? Are we expected to attribute instances of chance and absurdity to him as well, or are we expected to simply deny the existence of these things? Are so-called ‘acts of God’ really the work of God? Does “sovereignty” imply total control, or is the situation more complex than this? And of course, if God IS the author and agent of death as well as of life, what kind of God would such a deity truly be?

The second misunderstanding is related to the first. It is the notion that death, and here we are speaking of human death, is something that threatens us entirely from without, and so, is something which God can overcome by mere fiat. It is sometimes combined with the secular view that death is a wholly natural and neutral reality. This notion of human death fails to understand it as a partly, and indeed profoundly personal reality which is not simply part and parcel of our temporality, but is a special aspect of sinful existence. Because of this, it often goes unrecognized, much less acknowledged that God cannot force his way into this realm, nor overcome it from without. As in all else that is personal in our lives, God must be allowed or implicated into this realm if he is to bring it under subjection to himself and transform it. The logical consequences of this misunderstanding are also generally repressed, for such a misunderstanding of the relation of God to death generally raises the question: why did the Word have to become incarnate and God’s own Son suffer a torturous death by crucifixion, if God could have simply overcome sin and death by fiat?

Another Look at the Relation of Death to Sin and God

God created the world of time and space. He created it out of nothing (nihil), and it retains the ability to cease existing, to sink once again into nothingness. The created world continues to be conditioned by non-being. It is ambiguous and threatened. Non-being is an aspect of temporal-spatial existence. While created reality depends upon God for its existence, it is not simply from and of God. It is not, for instance, an emanation of God, and it does not possess its own being. It is finite and must be continually summoned and held in existence against the power of non-being also at work within and around it. Beyond this, and in part because of the presence of non-being as a conditioning element, this world also possesses potential. It has the capacity to grow and change. Non-being conditions this world as threat and as promise. It is both a condition of possibility and the condition of non-possibility.

When we consider human existence the situation becomes even more complex, because human beings are created with the capacity to reject God, and to ally themselves with that which is other than the One from whom life and meaning come, even looking to this as a source of life and meaning. Not only is human existence ambiguous in all the ways historical existence is ambiguous, but human beings can refuse to simply receive meaningful life as a gift from God. They can, as the OT puts the matter, “choose to know good and evil,” (in the very intimate way the OT uses the term knowledge), or “choose to be as Gods,” or again, they can “choose death.” Human beings can ally themselves with life and the author of life in total dependence, or (and there is no other option), they can ally themselves with the powers of non-being, the meaningless, anti-life, anti-truth, literally godless powers that are also part of spatial-temporal existence. And of course, they do. In fact they do so inevitably in one way and another. Without exception human beings embrace the powers and principalities of this world in a mistaken bid for autonomy and completion. They “live (and die) from” these powers, and in doing so give them greater standing, status, power, menace, and malignancy in the world than they would have without human complicity.

But where does non-being and the power of non-being come from in the first place? Is God its author? Is non-being a “something,” a form of matter as Manichaeism once suggested, and where else could it come from than the God who is the source of all that “is”? One of the better explanations comes from J√úrgen Moltmann in his, God in Creation. Building on a Jewish kabalistic notion , Moltmann explains:

<< God makes room for his creation by withdrawing his presence. What comes into being is a nihil which does not contain the negation of creaturely being (since creation is not yet existent), but which represents the partial negation of the divine being, inasmuch as God is not yet creator. The space which comes into being and is set free by God’s self-limitation is literally God-forsaken space. The nihil in which God creates his creation is god-forsakenness, hell, absolute death; and it is against the threat of this that he maintains his creation in life. Admittedly, the nihil only acquires this menacing character through the self-isolation of created beings to which we give the name of sin and godlessness. . . . This points to a necessary correction in the interpretation of creation: God does not create merely by calling something into being, or by setting something afoot. In a more profound sense he “creates” by letting-be, by making room and by withdrawing himself. >> (Emphasis added)

And what then of sin or estrangement from God? If non-being is a “natural” part of finite existence, then isn’t sin, which is primarily estrangement from God, also simply something natural, a part of historical existence? The answer is no. Sin, which begins as a natural separation or distinction from the God who dwells in eternity, occurs when human beings (who dwell instead in time and space) choose not to be entirely dependent upon God to save them from the threat of non-being. It occurs when human beings mistake actual independence from God for freedom, and when independence from God is pushed the further disastrous misstep, and mistaken for equality with God. It occurs whenever human beings decide that a humble response to God’s summons alone is not to be the only determinant of their lives, and align themselves with that which is not from or of God. It occurs when we make common cause with death and non-being rather than with the One who is the source of life and meaning. It occurs whenever human beings turn away from their creator toward that which is antithetical to him in acts of rebellion and apostasy, and transform a more natural separation-yet-communion into actual estrangement, alienation, and sometimes-outright antipathy. It happens whenever the “we” of our “original” state is rejected and/or betrayed, and thus transformed into the self-conscious, self-concerned, relatively isolated “I” attested to in the Genesis narratives.

Similarly then, death has also been transformed from something natural into something entirely unnatural. The death that we recognize as an integral part of human existence is something wholly unnatural. Just as human distinction and separateness was transformed into actual estrangement and alienation from God, from self, and from others, so too has normal finitude, ordinary mortality, taken on monstrous proportions in light of human sin. Human death is not simply a natural or neutral event. It is not simply the moment when non-being overcomes being, although it is certainly that as well. Human death is menacing; it is associated with human complicity and collusion with the anti-divine powers of nothingness, meaninglessness, and chaos. And of course, for this reason human death is “the wages of sin,” and implies the triumph of godlessness ---- a triumph which human beings have assisted, colluded, and become complicit in, in every possible way. Human death, apart from Christ, is a death of godforsakenness.

It is also, therefore, a death marked by the wrath of God, but wrath in the genuinely Pauline sense of the word. After all, God has created us with the capacity to choose something other than himself, or to be something other than we are created to be. And choose we do. And when we do, God leaves us to our choices. This is precisely what living under the wrath of God means. It does not mean that God is angry. It certainly does not mean that he punishes us in any way. It means simply that we are left to the choices we have made and the alliances we have forged throughout our lives. It means that, in fact, God respects (that is, he will not and cannot interfere with) these choices or alliances. It also means that those who are born into the world after us are touched by the same powers and principalities which we ourselves have elevated and magnified with our choices. Paul describes this in the first chapter of his epistle to the Romans. The wrath of God implies being “given up” to the alien powers with which we have aligned and allied ourselves, and therefore, to the gradually worsening decadence and disintegration that afflict us, our society, and our world because we have made common cause with chaos and nothingness. It implies an inhuman death marked by the embrace of godforsakenness, one in which absolute godlessness triumphs. Whatever death is or would be apart from Sin, it is not this. Instead it is the enemy of sinful humankind and of God, and it is this situation which the Cross of Christ is meant to address.

The Cross of Christ and the Death of Death

There are times and situations in human life and history which demand we look again at everything we believe, every definition and presupposition we hold, every scrap of knowledge we think we possess, and every perspective which seems intelligent, or natural, or logical. The picture of reality gained from the perspective of Holy Saturday surely suggests that the cross of Christ is, at the very least, one of these events. From this perspective alone we have a picture of a failed and possibly delusional “Messiah.” After all, God’s Son had not climbed down from his cross. He had not saved himself as he had saved others, and in the process he died a completely degrading and entirely ignoble death. The one he called Abba with an unprecedented intimacy had not established his reign with a mighty and outstretched arm. The angel of death had not passed over, nor had the powers of Rome been routed in any way reminiscent of the Egyptians at the Exodus. Instead, sin and death were the apparent victors on this day, and a God whose power is, even today, mainly understood by believers and unbelievers alike in abstract, impersonal terms of omnipotence, had proved unable to deal with the consequences of human freedom and its abuses, much less with the destructive powers of the world. And yet, the Christian Gospel affirms that this evident failure was the ground of a far more awesome victory, the victory of a hitherto unknown God whose “foolishness is wiser than the wisdom of men.”

So then, how is it the Cross of Christ “works”? This question is often posed “Why did Jesus have to die this kind of death?” And implicit in this query are a number of others: “why couldn’t Jesus simply have died of old age?” or, “why would his Father allow such a thing, much less will it?” or, “what kind of God would demand that his Son suffer betrayal, torture, abandonment, and even godforsakenness or hell?” and, “if God asks that of his Son, how can I believe he will have mercy on me?” These are important questions, and they are variations on the questions raised whenever God is made the author or agent of death. They are also the questions which are at least implicitly raised by notions of the cross which make it the place where an infinitely offended God is appeased or placated. And the answer to them is as simple as it is almost incomprehensible in its wondrousness. For God’s sake and the sake of a divine justice which is defined solely in terms of mercy and which seeks the reconciliation and completion of all of reality WITH God, God must overcome everything which separates him from us. For this reason, in order to implicate God into the realm from which he is by definition absent and from which he has actually been further excluded by human sin, someone sinless and therefore still entirely open and responsive to God, must die such a death.

On the one hand, this death must represent the worst death a human being may die. It must be a death marked by failure, weakness, abandonment and isolation. It must be a genuinely “inhuman” (that is, sinful) fate, the death of one whose dignity has been stripped from him, and who is left completely powerless and alone, with nothing left to recommend him to God. It, above all, must be a death where this one is given over entirely to nothingness, to the emptinesses of hell. It must be the death we each deserve --- the death that, without Christ, we each will die because of the alliances we have forged, and the choices we have inevitably made and ratified. It must be the death we each merit for ourselves, and often visit on others. And it must be that death in which the wrath of God is experienced without mitigation or diminution, precisely so that God can instead become inexhaustibly present here under the aspect of grace. At the same time, it must have been the most genuinely human death ever died. There could be nothing present in Christ which mitigated or compromised his openness to and dependence upon God, nothing which prevented the entire will of God being done in him, nothing which spoke of misguided autonomy, collusion with the powers of death and sin, disobedience, or pride. At the precise instant Jesus’ death is the most inhuman (godless) imaginable, it must also be the most human (open to God) precisely so that genuinely human existence which is defined in terms of obedience to and communion with God once again becomes a real possibility in our world. And the result is not only the possibility of genuinely human existence, but also necessarily, the simultaneous “death of (godforsaken) death.”

As we noted above, human death, the “wages of sin,” the result of our alliances with the “powers and principalities” of this world, cannot be destroyed from without, by fiat, without God also destroying his entire creation and abrogating the freedom of those who would and do ally themselves with these powers. So God chooses to become present even here in the realm of nothingness. God empties himself completely of his divine prerogatives in order to definitively reveal and assert a novel kind of divine sovereignty, an incredibly paradoxical power defined in terms of weakness. Sinful death is the ultimate enemy, and so, God chooses to be subject to it so that he might transform it entirely. Thus, Good Friday and Holy Saturday are followed and rendered permanently valid by Easter, the definitive and wholly new “Passover.” After Christ, death is no longer the godless place, and it no longer has the final word. Because of Christ, and because he chose to become subject to sin and the wages of sin out of love for his Father and us, God has become present “in the unexpected place,” and the power of death, which was the power to separate us from God forever, is definitively broken. The God Jesus reveals--- the One whose Name he makes known and real among us, is the formerly unseen, infinitely paradoxical God who, from creating to redeeming his creation, “calls into being the things that are not, and raises the dead to life.” Most significantly, he does so with a sovereignty which is worked out in self-emptying and self-limitation, a justice which is defined in terms of mercy, and a “power (which is) made perfect in weakness.”

Paul summarizes this whole theology in one statement: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their transgressions against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.” Note well that Paul does not say, “God was in Christ being reconciled to a world that offended him infinitely.” Note as well that neither is Paul concerned with a kind of justice which is either familiar or comfortable to us. This justice is neither distributive nor retributive. In no sense is this a God “who gives us what we deserve.” Instead Paul’s entire focus is on the fact that in the Christ Event, and most especially on the cross, God asserts his rights over creation, and defines justice with an exhaustively kenotic and sacrificial mercy which secures our freedom on the one hand, and which transforms the very things we choose when we abuse and misuse that freedom on the other. In this theology, God’s justice is actually expressed as his refusal to allow anything to separate us from him. Here grace and justice, are largely synonymous. If wrath means allowing us our choices out of love for us even in full recognition of our sin, grace means allowing us our choices, but, out of an unconditional love, transforming the very nature of that which we choose so that we are no longer separated from God, or broken and estranged as human beings. If wrath means allowing us to choose the godless and godforsaken, grace means the transformation of these things, and especially the transformation of sinful death into an actual sacrament of God’s presence. If sin means our separation from God and the self-assertion and ingratitude that prompts it, divine justice is God’s assertion that we belong to him no matter what, and what is ordinarily called “justification” is the reconciliation that results when God acts out this judgement in the Christ Event.

All of this, of course, is the climax of the Divine self-emptying that began at creation. It contrasts precisely with the pretensions to divinity assumed by human beings in sin --- the same pretensions that crucified Christ in a riot of religious righteousness and political expediency. This is indeed the victory of a God whose “foolishness is wiser than the wisdom of men.” It reminds us that ours is a God who is folly to “Greeks” and a scandal to “Jews,” and as it does so, it calls into question everything we once held as conventional wisdom about God, his sovereignty, wrath, justice, power, and dignity, and it offers us alternative and paradoxical definitions of all of these, as well as our own notions of what constitutes genuinely human existence. What was true at the time Paul wrote about the scandal and foolishness of the cross is no less true now. For this reason we can be very sure that if the Cross has not challenged our notions of all we experience and know, we have not really understood it. Even more seriously, so long as we refuse to accept the redefinitions achieved on the cross, we make it, and what was achieved there, void. There is, I think, no place our success or failure in this has more serious consequences than in our theology of death, and our ministry to the dying and bereaved.

Implications for Our Ministry to the Dying and Bereaved

This brings to our ministry then, an alternative way of looking at death, tragedy, senselessness, and their relation to God. I believe this alternative perspective results in an altogether more extensively and intensively comforting pastoral approach, but there is no doubt that it is tremendously challenging as well. After all, it requires that both we and those we minister to, give up the facile answers and simplistic platitudes that have so long mistakenly passed for Christian faith and truth. This perspective demands then that we adopt a grammar of salvation built on the paradoxes embodied in a theology God worked out in creation and on the cross in terms of kenosis and asthenia. In this theology, the God who renounces his own prerogatives out of love for us is not in total control, but ultimately, he is the God who asserts his rights over all of creation and mercifully brings all things to fulfillment in himself. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once rightly reminded us, “Not everything that happens is the will of God, but inevitably nothing that happens occurs outside his will.” In this theology God has willed the sinful death of only one person, his own Son, but he has done so only in order that he might defeat godless death entirely. In this theology, God gives, sin distorts, desecrates and destroys, and death takes away, but God intervenes in death and robs it of any ultimate victory. And in this grammar of salvation, not everything that happens in our world makes sense or has meaning, but at the same time it can all be the basis for celebrating a God who will bring order out of chaos, life out of death, and meaning out of absurdity if we only give him the chance, and perhaps even when we do not.

In concrete terms this means that when dying or grieving persons ask us if this human death is the will of God, we must answer no, but what God will make of it in Christ is another matter. Death is the enemy, and it is both God’s and ours, but in Christ it is also the vanquished enemy whose power, for all its awfulness, is a merely a hollow shell of what it once was. If we are asked why God does not intervene to save a dying child, for instance, we must be clear that God has intervened, but he has intervened in death to transform its very nature, and make sure it does not have the final word. And when those we minister to rightly affirm that they have sinned, and are frightened of God’s justice, or that they feel guilty as death approaches, we have to be able to remind them that God’s justice has determined they will not be separated from him. No. God has asserted his rights over all of creation, and has promised to love us with an everlasting love. Perhaps it is the case that God’s mercy assumes an awful aspect for those unprepared to be nothing but forgiven, but for those who are prepared to accept this gift, God’s justice is a source of unending joy, and its promise is still ultimately comforting. So, while we cannot minimize or trivialize the sin and guilt anyone experiences, neither can we allow it to be perceived as greater or more powerful than God’s own solution for it. The wages of sin is godforsaken death. But an innocent Christ has died our own deserved godless death, and the wages of this death is eternal life in communion with a God who refuses to allow sin and death to remain godless.

Many Christians are scandalized or frightened by the suggestion that God is not in complete control of his creation. They believe it offends against a God who is traditionally described in terms of omnipotence. But they have not been introduced to the paradoxical sovereignty of the God of Jesus Christ who defeats sin and death by participating in them. Here God’s sovereignty is exercised precisely where he dies for us. A God who is said to limit himself in creating and redeeming a free creation, is a real stumbling block to many Christians, and more than this, many are made nervous by the notion that there are things at work in the world which God neither foresees in detail, nor immediately controls. This too seems to offend against the theology of an omniscient, omnipotent God. Many will be downright angry at a notion of divine justice where people “don’t get what they deserve.” After all, a God whose judgement IS his mercy certainly is a stumbling block. But, again, God asserts his rights over us as he will and for all these people, the paradox of a crucified God whose foolishness is wiser than the wisdom of men, needs to be more convincingly proclaimed and taught. While some of us find the notion of God as the author and agent of death repugnant, many others are threatened by a notion of death where God is neither the agent nor the author. At the same time however, these folks may not have been taught that through Christ’s death and resurrection sinful death is miraculously transformed into a sacrament of God’s presence. And yet, it is certainly part of an adequate ministry to the dying and bereaved to make these central aspects of the Gospel of Jesus Christ effectively known. We will have failed badly if we are unable to recognize and adequately affirm either side of the God-death equation that is at the heart of Christian kerygma.

Every human life has its Good Fridays and Holy Saturdays. There is failure, absurdity, betrayal, collusion, isolation, injustice, cruelty, torment, and death. There are times when we are simply left helpless and mute in the face of our own and others’ inhumanity, and when we are bewildered by the tragic and inexplicable circumstances of our personal and collective histories, as well as by the silence and apparent inadequacy of God at these times. In the short term Sin often does triumph and the powers of this world are sometimes immediately victorious. After all, God is not yet “all in all,” and not all that happens is either from or of him. Ministers to the dying and bereaved have to be courageous enough to admit these things without mitigation or equivocation. And yet, there is another side to all of this that must be communicated clearly and persuasively.

Death and the apparent triumph of non-being are followed by resurrection, and as a result, we really can’t look at any of reality in quite the same way again. The negativities of life are real, but so is the God who chooses to enter into them and transform them with his own life and presence. After all, ours is the God of Jesus and Paul, the God who raises the dead to life, the God whose justice is defined in terms of mercy rather than wrath, and who refuses to allow anything to separate us from his love. Ours is the God who assumes a position of impotence in order that his sovereignty might be perfected and we might be saved when we are most helpless. And he is the God who does this so that even while we face squarely the greatest tragedies and senselessnesses life has to offer, we can exultantly cry with Paul, and help those to whom we minister to do the same, “Sin where is thy victory, death where is thy sting?”