16 April 2017

Defeating Godless Death: Why it could Not Happen by Divine Fiat

[[Sister, I know you might not be able to answer this until after Easter and that's okay. I can see why a lot of individual miracles would not have been enough, I think, but couldn't God have just have defeated sin and death with a word? Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead so why couldn't God not have done something similar for all of us? Thank you for your posts. I really enjoy them.]]

Thanks for your comments and questions. They are good and important ones. They arise for us especially around the Triduum. In fact, the question of what was possible for God came up in a discussion I had with a priest friend on Holy Thursday so it's pretty fresh for me. Your reference to Lazarus' being raised not only sharpens the question, but is actually also the key to answering it. You see, one of the things biblical scholars and theologians point out is that Lazarus was not resurrected in the way Jesus was. Lazarus was not raised to new or eternal life but to a mortal life in and of this world, a life which would one day end again in death. Sometimes they will point out the difference between resuscitation and resurrection in speaking of Jesus himself; the distinction works for what happened to Lazarus as well. What they are trying to point out in this is that there was something lacking in this event; the raising of Lazarus was somehow insufficient to deal definitively with death.

In Jesus' raising of Lazarus, godless death itself is not destroyed and until this happens the victory needed over sin is not accomplished in any life much less brought to completion in every life and the whole of creation. It is therefore possible to understand this particular miracle of Jesus as the climax of a history of acts of power --- healings, exorcisms, etc --- which are still insufficient to destroy godless death and death itself.  Even were Jesus to do this for every person he could have, it would simply not have been enough. Death itself must be transformed from the godless reality it is to a reality in which God is met face to face and one day, destroyed completely. This  entry into the realm of godless death (or, from another perspective, the taking up of godless death into God's own life so that it and the whole of reality is transformed and made sacramental) is the heart of what we understand as the reconciliation of the world on a cosmic level.

On a more personal but intimately related level it is important to remember that the death we die is understood theologically as a consequence of sin. There is a natural perishing which is intrinsic to the evolving, imperfect world we know. But human beings are broken and estranged by sin and this complicates the death we each will die. It is no longer a natural perishing but what I have referred to a number of times as godless death. Every time we make a choice for something other than God or for life in God, we effectively choose godless death as well. If we choose to live without God so then we choose to die without God --- and that means we choose death as emptiness without Love, without God. We not only choose it as a future reality, we build it into our lives and even into our very selves (body, etc.) so it affects every moment of our lives. Paul asks, "Who will save us from this body of death?" He is clear in his theology that the situation is more dire and intractable than a merely natural perishing. It is something from which we must  be saved.

When we are being saved from godlessness that occurs by God transforming this with his presence. And when the godlessness is a dimension of the death which dwells within us and which we ourselves loose in this world, we are speaking of a personal reality which God cannot simply destroy by fiat --- not without destroying us as well. God must be "given access" to this reality, and that access, which is achieved in a generous self-emptying motivated by love of God, must be more radical, more profound, than any sinner can manage. This is so because it can only occur through one's openness and attentiveness to God --- an openness and attentiveness which is deeper than human sinfulness, an openness to the will of God which can only be seen clearly by one whose selflessness and love are entirely uncompromised by human alienation and brokenness.

The NT word for this kind of openness is obedience; to express the radical or exhaustive quality of Jesus' own salvific obedience Paul says more;  namely, he defines it as [[obedience unto death, even death on a cross]]; Jesus' radical, exhaustive obedience, opens the way for God to enter the most godforsaken dimensions of our lives and world. But this is not a miracle he could have done "from the outside" or "without complete self-emptying" in the profoundly compassionate but still somewhat personally distanced way he healed illnesses or exorcised demons. It required he take on sinful death itself in an act of complete identification with out state and in an exhaustive helplessness and kenosis. In this way Jesus' obedience allows for "God's power [to become] perfected in weakness." In both his miracles and in his resurrection Jesus mediates the grace of God. In the miracles he has not yet relinquished the degree of agency or authority he yet possessed nor the distance from our sinful conditions or situation he entirely relinquishes on the cross.

This kind of relinquishment or self-emptying is only "learned" --- if it is ever "learned" or "achieved" in one's life --- through radical suffering. (Words are difficult at this point and in speaking about this "learning" and "achieving", "revealed" in the sense of  "being made real (realized) in space and time" may be the best word here.) The process is not automatic --- as though suffering alone produces the change; it does not. But through such suffering the person of faith gradually becomes entirely dependent on the grace of God; thus, self-emptying occurs. One moves from faith to deeper and deeper faith as human weakness is transformed and transfigured by Divine power. We have all experienced this process in our own lives in various ways and to various depths and degrees, but to remain open to God's presence and power even as one experiences God's complete absence (something I believe only Jesus has experienced) was necessary to destroy godless death. The bottom line in all of this is that God could not have destroyed godless or sinful death simply by fiat; human obedience (openness to God's power and presence) was necessary to allow God access to this essentially personal reality. In his exhaustive openness to God Jesus achieved this in and through his death by crucifixion; as a direct consequence he was raised from godless death to eternal life at the right hand of God.

And though this is a separate topic let me note that what remains is for us to be made sharers in THIS death of Jesus. Christians have had this happen through baptism where they are "baptized into (Christ's) death, and thus too, into his resurrection"; in this way we are literally made a new creation. Eternal life has broken into our temporal world and transformed it utterly; we become a people of hope --- trusting God for the ultimate meaning of our lives and empowered to love God's creation into greater and greater  wholeness as we live this new creation here and now in a conscious and explicit way. This is at the heart of our vocations and (com)missioning to embody and proclaim the Good News with our lives.