Since its first hesitant days, the Church has always claimed that Jesus is the fullest revelation of God in the world. As it is written:
Whereas long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, in these last days God has spoken to us by a Son, whom God appointed heir of all things and through whom God created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being. (Hebrew 1.1-4)
And so, when we see the baby Jesus in the manger in Bethlehem, we witness a revelation of God. When we see Jesus accompanied by the voice of the Father and the descent of the Spirit at his baptism, we witness a revelation of God. When we see Jesus transfigured on the mountain, we see a revelation of God. While it’s easy to see this in these glorious events, it’s more challenging to do this today, on this Great and Holy Friday that we call ‘Good’ despite its sorrows.
Where was God in the events that led to Jesus’ death on the cross? Today I’d like to reflect on this question. And, we will see that the answer is, as Paul put it, that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5.19).
The scene starts in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before Jesus’ death. Troubled by the magnitude of what has been set in motion, Jesus goes off to pray and asks the disciples to keep watch. But, as he is pouring his heart out to his Father, asking for ‘this cup to be taken away’ — ‘but not my will but yours be done’, his disciples drift off to sleep. I don’t know about you, but this is one of those moments when I find Jesus the most relatable. How many times in life are we beset by our anxieties and fears for what is happening around us and all that is outside of our control? How many times do those we are counting on for support in our times of anguish and need let us down, or even ask us to manage their feelings about our problems? How many times does our love break our hearts? In the wonderful words of Olivier Clement:
At Gethsemane he sees, with his insatiable mercy for both the most destructive and most destroyed, he sees — he feels — all of the absurdity of the human condition, the daily massacre of love, the will to power and possession, the executioners and victims, the despairing and those who bring others to despair. At Gethsemane, God humanly experiences all of our agonies. (Joie de la Resurrection, 57 (translation mine))
Where is God at Gethsemane? God is in Christ, sorrowful and disappointed, in agony for himself, for those he loves, and for the state of the world.
Next, Jesus is arrested, formally betrayed by Judas’ kiss. His disciples try to come to his defense, but right as Peter escalates the situation by drawing his sword on the armed guards who carry out the arrest, he tells him to put his sword away, “Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?” The die has been cast; there is no escaping the events that have been set in motion. Jesus understands this, even if Peter doesn’t. “He was in the world, … ; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him” (John 1.10-11).
Where is God at Jesus’ arrest? God is in Christ, rejected by his own people and unrecognized by those who should know him best.
Jesus is then brought to trial, before both religious and secular authorities. The religious leaders accuse him of blasphemy and demand to know what he’s been teaching. When he replies that he’s taught nothing in secret and everyone should know what he said, he is beaten. They bring him to the Romans, who accuse him of sedition. They have nothing on him yet there is no way out; the conspirators have made sure of that. There is only one way this is going to end: “Crucify him!”
Where is God at Jesus’ trials? God is accused, words twisted and willfully misunderstood. God is condemned to death by his own creatures simply for speaking unpopular truths.
And finally, Jesus is mocked, abused, and nailed to the cross. Forsaken and abandoned, he dies. “It is finished.”
Where is God at the cross?
God is mocked, abused, and killed. God is forsaken, lonely, and abandoned. Again quoting Olivier Clement:
At Golgotha, just as at Gethsemane, God humanly experiences God’s absence, God’s silence, and that feverish thirst in the void where we find ourselves today. At Golgotha, just as at Gethsemane, between Father and Son, between God and God, builds up like an opaque wall all of humanity’s anguish, loneliness, desperate pride, and the pride of those who at the same time turn away and die from turning away, die of hatred and self-hatred. At Golgotha, just as at Gethsemane, it’s as though God took humanity’s part against God. As though God was, paradoxically, godless.
(God is dead and we have killed him.)
Yet, throughout all of this, God is at work reconciling the world. In the garden he intercedes for his friends, and heals the guard Peter attacked. In his trials, he accepts humanity’s cup of wrath and refuses to back down, neither confessing to crimes he has not committed, nor using fine words to get out of the trap laid for him. And on the cross, God forgives those who killed him, welcomes the penitent thief, and makes family between his mother and John.
That is God’s work and God did not die until that work was finished.
And so, were is God at the cross? God is in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.
For Christians, there is no greater revelation of God than Jesus. And so there is no greater revelation of God’s heart than the cross, which was the ultimate end of Jesus’ bold, counter-cultural prophetic life.